Lawmakers deadlock on bill requiring advance notice for group home opening

Posted April 22, 2013, at 5:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A measure that would have required the Department of Health and Human Services to notify communities in advance of the creation of residential facilities for people found not criminally responsible for crimes because of insanity led to a stalemate Monday in the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee.

LD 805, An Act to Require Notice to and Input From Municipalities in Which Certain Group Homes Are Located, resulted in a tie vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, would have required DHHS to tell municipal officials the location and other specific information related to the facility at least 120 days prior to the opening of the facility or the signing of a contract to do so. Conversely, the department would be required to review any response and site alternatives provided by the community.

While some argued that the bill would give communities the heads-up about potentially dangerous people in their community, others said law enforcement officers in most communities already are notified.

Mary Louise McEwen, superintendent of the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, oversees treatment of many of the Mainers who have been found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity or mental defect. She said there are 21 patients living in group homes with around-the-clock supervision, all in Augusta or South Portland; 11 in supervised apartments in Augusta and Waterville; 12 in independent apartments or homes in Augusta, Hartland, Bangor, Lewiston, Topsham and Saco; two in assisted living homes in Waterville and North Berwick; and two in Maine State Prison in Warren.

McEwen also said that there have been no cases of people found not criminally responsible committing a violent crime after their initial crime.

Wilson said his bill was meant to simply provide notification to community leaders so they have the opportunity to discuss it in advance of the home being opened.

“There’s no requirement to follow through with what the municipality says,” said Wilson. “I can’t force the state to restrict where somebody lives, nor can a municipality if this bill were to pass.”

McEwen said no matter where patients adjudicated to be not criminally responsible for their actions and under the care of the Department of Health and Human Services live, they are being supervised.

“If they do not follow the treatment plan, they are brought back to Riverview immediately,” said McEwen. “It’s a very tight process and as a result I have the utmost confidence that these are not the people you need to worry about living next door to you.”

Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, the House chairwoman of the State and Local Government Committee, said she has faith in the system but still thinks people ought to know who their neighbors are, especially when the neighbor is someone who has committed a serious crime, regardless of whether the court system deems them criminally responsible.

“People should know who is living next door,” said Graham.

Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, agreed.

“I’d like to have this in statute,” he said. “I think it would be worthwhile. This bill is pretty simplistic in my opinion. All we’re looking for is a heads up.”

Wilson said despite their treatment regimen and degree to which they are supervised, defendants found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity are a higher risk to society than others.

“I’m not saying municipalities should have the final say [in a home for defendants found not criminally responsible], but we should have some input and we should definitely be notified,” said Wilson. “These are a different classification of people and I’m not afraid to say it.”

Others on the committee questioned whether the bill would overshoot the state’s authority.

“I look at this as the Legislature is going to redefine zoning in an area where they don’t have any authority,” said Rep. David Cotta, R-China. “It’s quasi-zoning by the Legislature and I can’t support that.”

The committee voted 6-6 on an “ought not to pass” motion, which is how the vote stood at the end of the day Monday. Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, who was absent Monday, has until Wednesday at noon to cast his vote, according to the committee clerk.

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