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Jail alternatives dwindle for defendants with mental illness

For defendants with mental illness or substance problems, alternatives to incarceration have become harder to find because of budget cuts that have reduced the number of jail diversion beds in Connecticut.

Despite a waiting list with hundreds of people, the state’s Court Support Services Division has cut the number of beds since 2016 from 311 to 188.

The cuts have meant many low-level defendants, particularly those incapable of paying bond, have had to remain in jail, where advocates say mental health services are not as strong and their conditions are likely to get worse.

The state has contracts with organizations like Perception Programs Inc. in Willimantic to divert those defendants from jail to facilities where they can receive treatment.

Perception, which has 10 beds available, offers 20 hours of group therapy week and has a nurse on staff to help patients with medication. Residents have “fairly restricted movement” but are allowed into the community for preapproved reasons like medical appointments, according to Erin Joudrey, chief operating officer for the nonprofit.

If people with mental health issues or addiction are not getting the appropriate level of service, they will continue to have struggles that could leader to higher recidivism rates, said Gary Roberge, executive director of the court support services division. Anytime his staff can treat somebody in the community, it’s a better alternative to incarceration, he said.

“We don’t have enough beds in the state,” he said, “it’s a never-ending struggle of bed capacity.”

Greg Bolduc said he was released from a jail diversion bed on July 15 after he was arrested for violating his parole back in April.

“For some people, they are going through JRI beds just to get out of jail,” he said, adding he was in jail for roughly 60 days before he got a bed. “I took it (as an option) to better myself; I had a prior clean time for three years.”

While waiting in jail for a bed, what got him through, he said, was “being spiritual” and learning that his mother’s cancer was in remission — motivation enough for him to get out and change his life.

“I’m sick of living this lifestyle of being all right for a while and before you know it, bouncing around again,” he said.

Nathaniel Reeves, who spent nearly a year in jail at the Hartford Corrections Center in 2014, said that it had counselors and a psychiatrist but that he felt treatment for his mental health issues was lacking. He has been in and out of prison most of his adult life and has struggled with substance use.

“They’ll give you medication if they deem it necessary to cover their ass, but it’s not really treatment,” said Reeves, who now works as a recovery coach.

“It’s like a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, if you ask me,” he said.

Karen Martucci, spokeswoman for the Department of Correction, said the agency takes the care of inmates with mental illnesses very seriously and meets the needs of individuals.

“The agency is committed to providing the best care for someone struggling with mental health or addiction, and we continue to strategize to find new ways to help them,” she said.

Louise Pyers, criminal justice project coordinator for the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that she believes the DOC does its best to provide treatment for people with serious mental illnesses but that the options are sometimes limited in jails, as opposed to prisons.

Anytime someone can get into treatment and not stay in jail or prison, she said, it is much better.

The average cost of one of the diversion beds is $24,000 to $32,000 per year for substance use beds, while mental health beds would cost slightly more. The 40% reduction in available beds in the past few years owes to cuts in the budget for Connecticut’s Judicial Branch, officials said.

Connecticut made prison reform a priority under Gov. Dannel Malloy, who sought to bring about a more forgiving criminal justice system and left office this year.

Mike Lawlor, a former undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning under Malloy, said it would be a mistake to think of it as a zero-sum game in which programs will suffer if dollars are cut.

Money that is being cut may go to help in the public health or housing sector instead of at the moment they are incarcerated, which can prevent further strain on those resources, he said.

Christine Perra Rapillo, Connecticut’s chief public defender, said in an emailed statement that the Judicial Branch offers a lot of very good programming but that there are never enough spots for everyone who needs them.

Quick access to service is important to folks who are not incarcerated, she added, since the motivation for treatment is often greatest when they are closest to the initial arrest.

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