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News

Crime victims’ concerns and patients’ rights at odds in debate over bill

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YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG
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Whiting Forensic Division in Middletown on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. The hospital provides treatment and evaluation services for patients with mental health conditions who are involved in the criminal justice system or are not ready to be safely treated in less restrictive settings.

In May 2018Chevoughn Augustin stabbed a Hartford police officer in the neck, nearly killing her. Augustin was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity and is now a patient at the Whiting Forensic Hospital in Middletown, where she could remain for 38 years — if not longer.

On Monday, the now-retired officer, Jill Kidik, testified against a bill that would make changes to the Psychiatric Security Review Board, which supervises people like Augustin — those charged with crimes but ultimately acquitted because of serious mental health conditions.

The debate over Senate Bill 450 is the latest setting for the airing of a tension common in matters involving the criminal legal system: balancing the safety and respect of victims with the best interests and rehabilitation of those who commit crimes.

But the argument over the PSRB is more complicated, because those under its supervision have not been convicted of a crime and are sent to a hospital to, in theory, be rehabilitated.

Nancy Alisberg, a member of the CVH Whiting Task Force, which answered questions from the Public Health Committee Monday morning, said people go to hospitals to recover, but the PSRB doesn’t make decisions with a patient’s recovery in mind.

“You’ve got this strange dichotomy of individuals being in a hospital system that’s supposed to be about recovery, but being governed by a board, the PSRB, that is not interested in your recovery,” Alisberg said. “They’re only interested in whether you pose a risk to the community, so it’s impossible for those two entities to really work together, because they have diametrically different agendas.”

Kidik testified against a provision of the bill that would make changes to the temporary leave policy — a program that allows a patient to leave campus for a few hours and spend time with a community provider — by giving a hospital superintendent, instead of the PSRB, the authority to grant that form of leave.

“When said acquittee goes on leave and stabs someone through the throat killing them, is the superintendent or commissioner or director personally responsible for that, then?” Kidik asked in written testimony submitted to the legislature.

Christopher DeAngelo, a PSRB patient, wrote his testimony by hand from Whiting Forensic Hospital the day before Kidik submitted hers. DeAngelo recounted a mistake he made in 2015. He didn’t break the law or hurt anyone, but he drank alcohol, which violated the terms of his conditional release. Because of that transgression, he would lose the privilege of living outside the walls of a psychiatric hospital and volunteering at a New Haven animal shelter.

“I’ve now been back in the hospital for six years and seven months for consuming alcohol in Aug. 2015,” DeAngelo wrote. “I have not been a danger to myself or others since being back in the hospital.”

The bill that DeAngelo and Kidik are referring to would not abolish the PSRB, which the CVH Whiting Task Force suggested lawmakers at least consider. Instead, the proposal would create a task force to study the review board and examine whether it should continue to exist.

Testimony from the Division of Criminal Justice, which said there is “no question” the PSRB should exist, stated that there are 146 people under the supervision of the board, 77 of whom were acquitted of murder charges.

“The overwhelming majority of those individuals who are under PSRB supervision committed violent crimes,” the unsigned testimony says.

That might be because it’s easier for people to do time in prison for lower-level crimes than to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton and ranking member of the Public Health Committee, said defense attorneys have told her they advise clients not to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, warning them, “Once you go to Whiting, you will never get out.”

After a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity, a court sets a maximum term of commitment, usually commensurate with the maximum time the person would have spent in prison if they’d been convicted. But that commitment period can be extended, in essence meaning a person could be at Whiting for the rest of their life.

Somers, an outspoken advocate for those who are living at Whiting, said she has gotten letters from patients saying “that if they had gone the DOC route, they would have been out of jail in 15 years, and now they’ve been in Whiting for 35 or 40 years.”

Vanessa Cardella, the director of the PSRB, testified that the best way to keep the public safe is to make sure acquittees have access to mental health care.

“Public safety is the equivalent of a person’s recovery,” Cardella said. “I do think that we consider the priority of the acquittees, and the safety and recovery of the acquittees, as much as community safety.”