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Editorial: Sick, But Not Sick Enough; How Mentally Ill Fall Through a Crack

The story of Matt Staley, the mentally ill man whose odyssey through the criminal justice system was chronicled last week by Valley News staff writer Mark Davis, is remarkable only because, for the moment at least, there is hope that he is on the verge of a better future — living in a group home in Woodstock, again taking the medication he needs to control his schizophrenia, even thinking about finding an apartment in the Upper Valley.

In all other respects, Staley’s story is sadly — even tragically — familiar. Despite multiple encounters with the police, the courts and the corrections system over years of homelessness, he rarely received the help he needed. Simply put, he was too ill to be held accountable for his actions (mostly trespassing) by the criminal justice system, but not sick enough that authorities could compel him to get treatment for the schizophrenia from which he has suffered for two decades — treatment that he resisted. So authorities in New Hampshire and Vermont mostly did the next best thing they could think of: move him along to another jurisdiction.

An estimated 2.4 million Americans have schizophrenia. Many suffer from paranoia and delusions, and find it difficult to fit in. Some find relief in wandering, as Staley did in hiking, with the result that they make up a significant portion of the homeless population. Thus do they repeatedly wander into the purview of the criminal justice system, often when they are charged with trespassing.

Staley’s fortunes began to turn when he was arrested last New Year’s Eve for the fifth time in the previous year. His arrest on a trespassing charge was prominently reported in the Valley News because of the circumstances: He had broken into the senior center in Hartford seeking shelter from the bitter cold, a story that perhaps had added resonance at Christmas time.

Then-Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand eventually dropped the charge, as authorities in other places had done many times previously, but only after getting assurances that Staley would get some help — which a couple of social service organizations undertook to offer. Equally important was that this time Staley accepted the treatment that was offered.

It must be noted that the previous shunting of Staley from town to town was not a mere matter of indifference on the part of the police, courts and corrections. The criminal justice system has become de facto a part of the mental health system, although it is ill-equipped to fulfill that role. (A 2005 New Hampshire study found that 46 percent of inmates suffer some form of mental illness.) On top of that, community mental health systems have been devastated by budget cuts and are themselves strapped for resources.

And then there’s a crack in the system where criminal justice and mental health almost, but don’t quite, meet. Far too many mentally ill people fall through that crack. The irony that Staley could have gotten treatment if he had been sicker than he was — by presenting a risk to himself or others — points to the need for law enforcement authorities and mental health providers to collaborate more closely.

That probably won’t happen unless some particular person in the criminal justice system in each jurisdiction — a prosecutor, a police officer, a corrections official — is assigned to develop a working relationship with mental health providers and to make an effort to get treatment for individuals whose criminal offenses are minor but whose inability to get treatment is a major obstacle to living a productive life.

One might even think of this role as similar to the victim’s advocates who now work out of prosecutors’ offices. In many ways, of course, the mentally ill are victims, both of debilitating disease and a society that wants to avert its gaze from their plight. There has to be a better answer than a one-way bus ticket out of town.