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Impaired Ex-Inmates Weigh on Vt.

Community Placement Seen Reaching Limit in Cost, Care

Montpelier — Like many other states, Vermont in recent decades has been shrinking the number of mentally ill residents locked in institutions in favor of community placements, while seeing a boom in prison inmates with psychiatric and brain disorders.

Now the state is facing a new challenge: How to care for people labeled as having “serious functional impairments” as they emerge from Vermont’s corrections system and try to find a way to live in the community.

The state this year is spending more than $3.3 million on community placements for 22 former inmates who present continuing behavioral challenges and must be monitored with staff levels amounting to one-to-one or even two-to-one.

“It was never a program” created by the Legislature, said Monica Hutt, director of policy and planning for the state Agency of Human Services. “We’ve just been adding individual needs and budgets one by one.”

Hutt was one of several agency officials, law enforcement leaders and human rights advocates testifying Tuesday before a special committee of the Legislature set up to grapple with the problem. Its creation came in response to a decision by Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration to declare a moratorium on finding more community placements for more seriously functionally impaired inmates emerging from Vermont’s prison system.

The intensive supervision required by some of the former inmates can generate costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, per person, officials said. There was broad agreement at the hearing that community support for the inmates is important to the effort to keep them from committing new crimes, but there also was a consensus that the effort needs some boundaries and a budget.

“One of the ways we do get to one-on-one or two-on-one (staffing) is that there have been repeated failures” by the inmate in question to respond well to less intensive supervision, said Susan Wehry, commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, one of the divisions of the Human Services Agency.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, who is co-chairing the special committee, said a report drafted in January 2012, but never officially released, said one possible solution might be construction of a new locked facility where former inmates with continuing mental health-related behavioral problems could be housed inside, but with an emphasis on psychiatric care rather than corrections-style incarceration.

One thing clear at Tuesday’s hearing was that lawmakers are in the beginning stages of learning about the issues. Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, sought clarification late in the day on the nature of the moratorium that had been declared. Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, said in an interview that he, too, had more to learn about the details of the situation.