AUGUSTA — Lawmakers expressed deep division Monday over a bill that touches on issues of mental illness, the safety of local neighborhoods and the rights of those found not criminally responsible for their actions.
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, is sponsoring L.D. 805, which would require the state to notify cities and towns before they open group homes for Riverview Psychiatric Center patients who have committed violent crimes. Last summer, city officials learned from the Kennebec Journal of new group homes on Glenridge Drive and Green Street.
Monday afternoon, the committee vote on the bill was 6-5, ought not to pass, but two members had not cast votes.
Wilson is hoping to avoid a repeat of that situation by requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to let municipal officials know before a new home opens and to give the municipality a chance to provide feedback. Ultimately, the decision would still rest with the state.
“While yes, they may be medicated, they are still individuals who have committed heinous crimes,” Wilson told members of the State and Local Government Committee during a work session on the bill. “These are a different classification of people and I’m not afraid to say it.”
Those recently relocated to Augusta neighborhoods include Mark Bechard, who killed two nuns and severely injured two others in Waterville in 1996, and Enoch Petrucelly, a former Palmyra man who stabbed his brother to death in 2008. Both were found not criminally responsible for their actions and spent time at Riverview before they were deemed healthy enough to live in the community.
Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen told lawmakers Monday that the state is responsible for 88 people who have been found not criminally responsible, 48 of whom live in communities across the state. Of those 48 patients, 37 live in Augusta in group homes, supervised apartments or other living arrangements, according to statistics McEwen provided to the committee. None has violently re-offended, the statistics show.
“These are not the people you need to worry about living next door to you,” she said. “It’s the people you don’t know about.”
She said the patients are put through a step-by-step process before they are allowed to live in the community, and the group homes with forensic patients have staffing around the clock. She also said that in the future, she will let City Council members who serve on a social services committee know if another group home is planned, and that Riverview wants to conduct meetings for the public to help them understand mental illness.
Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, said she was torn about the bill, although she ended up voting against it. She said the mental health professionals who work with the patients have the experience to judge whether they can live in a community.
“If I’m a soccer mom living next door, I have no basis of understanding,” she said.
Others said the bill is simply an attempt to give a community a heads-up before a decision about placement is made. Now, the state is required to notify police or the sheriff’s department when individuals are released to a community. The bill seeks to extend that notification to municipal officials if a group home is planned.
“I don’t see why that’s an issue if we’re already notifying police,” said Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco. “It’s another simple step that should be in place already.”
Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, said municipal officials should do a better job of communicating with each other if they need better notification.
“I don’t think we need a law to set up internal information in a community,” she said.
Republicans split on the bill as well, with members voting on both sides of the issue. The bill now heads to the House for consideration.
Rep. Catherine Nadeau, D-Winslow, said the issue hits home for her because her community is right across the river from Waterville, where the two nuns were murdered. She said that while McEwen has pledged to make changes in her notification process, there’s no guarantee a future superintendent would show the same courtesy to local officials.
“Please, can we put this in writing?” said Nadeau, who also serves on the Winslow Town Council. “I, as a council person, I need to know this.”
Susan Cover — 621-5643