Punish the mentally ill!

In the lobby
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 11, 2007

Officials in Maine attorney general Steven Rowe’s office recently tried to get a law passed that would have blessed the department’s position that severely mentally ill prisoners should be punished before being treated. And they made the legislative effort in a controversial way.

The measure required prisoners committed to Riverview Psychiatric Center because they were found “not criminally responsible” for assaults on guards due to insanity to first finish their prison sentences before receiving treatment in the Augusta state mental hospital.

An assistant attorney general had gotten the Criminal Justice Advisory Commission (CLAC), a committee of judges and lawyers, to sponsor it, but CLAC quickly withdrew it from legislative consideration when the group discovered it might affect a lawsuit the AG is involved in.

The AG’s office had not told CLAC of the suit, which seeks to force the Department of Corrections to hospitalize Michael James, a state prison inmate with severe mental illness. The department has defied a judge’s commitment order by keeping him in prison, and the AG is defending Corrections (see “Arbitrary Imprisonment,” by Lance Tapley, July 21, 2006.)

In fact, one of the two assistants attorney general who developed the proposal to change the law, Diane Sleek, represents Corrections. The other, special assistant AG Charles Leadbetter, a CLAC member, had convinced the group to sponsor the change.

In an e-mail, Sleek says: “There was no attempt by this office to pre-empt by legislation the court case. Indeed, I do not believe that any legislation would have applied retroactively and, thus, would not have applied to the case being litigated now. The inclusion of this provision in the CLAC bill was due to a misunderstanding.”

But other lawyers, including Michael James’s attorney Helen Bailey, said the law could have affected appeals. John Pelletier, chairman of the AG-appointed but theoretically independent CLAC, said he pulled the provision from consideration by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee at an April 6 work session because “our practice is not to put forth changes that affect pending litigation.” It had been in CLAC’s annual omnibus bill revising criminal statutes, LD 1240.

Linda Pistner, chief deputy attorney AG, while admitting Sleek “reviewed” the bill, said it was “not an AG bill.”

Leadbetter took responsibility for carrying the proposal to CLAC — “Nobody was to blame except myself” — although he conceded Sleek made suggestions and there “may have been others” in the AG’s office who reviewed it. He said he was aware the lawsuit existed but had not kept up on its details.

Michael James, 24, one of the sickest men in the Warren prison, has spent years in the harsh solitary-confinement Supermax. If his assault record is testimony, he has gotten sicker by the year.

Last summer, a Knox County jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity for 10 assaults on guards. After Superior Court judge Donald Marden committed him to Riverview, Corrections officials said the AG’s office told them not to send him there. The AG’s office would not explain the refusal.

James’s trial lawyer, Joseph Steinberger, of Rockland, and the Disability Rights Center, of Augusta, represented by Bailey, sued to compel the state to obey the judge.

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