Last summer, Shawna Thibodeau spent 45 days in a jail cell by herself, terrified and confused.
She was arrested in early June for stealing a necklace from a home in Oakland, where she’d moved after her former residence, a group home, suddenly shut down. It had been a difficult few years, and, by the time of her arrest, she was already facing charges for breaking into homes in Androscoggin and Oxford counties, and was on probation for a theft in 2018.
But from the moment Thibodeau, 34, was booked at the Kennebec County jail in Augusta, on June 3, 2019, she did not appear to the guards as the kind of dangerous person who needed to be locked up before her case reached a conviction.
Barely 5 feet tall, she stood beneath the fluorescent lights of the intake desk and showed signs of an intellectual disability. Her cheeks felt hot, pricked by severe anxiety, she said. When she indicated to a guard that she might harm herself, the staff followed a suicide protocol that required isolating her in a cell near the intake desk where they could keep a close watch. But the idea of keeping her all alone concerned them, too.
“To lock Shawna in a room? We didn’t feel that was appropriate,” said Lt. Bryan Slaney, the jail’s assistant administrator. When intake wasn’t busy, the guards let her sit outside her cell with them and gave her colored pencils to pass the time. She drew bright pictures of Disney characters and children.
The guards took these steps because they recognized that Thibodeau’s mental health and intellectual disability likely played a role in her alleged criminal activity, and now jail was worsening her condition. Indeed, scores of people with unaddressed mental illnesses and disabilities have ended up in Maine county jails amid a dearth of mental health services in the community.
But if Thibodeau’s case illustrates how people with mental illnesses and disabilities get caught in the criminal justice system, it also spotlights how some courtrooms in Maine are trying to mitigate that harm.
Two jurisdictions in Maine — Cumberland County and Kennebec County, where Thibodeau’s case was resolved in February — have created streamlined processes to handle cases like hers to minimize the amount of time severely ill defendants spend in jail and to try to ensure they do not return.
People with mental illnesses are 4 1/2 times more likely to be arrested than those in the general population, according to a report by the Maine Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, published a month before Thibodeau’s arrest. Their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system nationally has been increasing over decades. Today, Maine incarcerates more people with severe mental illnesses than it hospitalizes.
It means that Maine punishes people with mental illness and disabilities more than others for the same or lesser crimes, the report warns.
The trends tend to perpetuate injustice: People like Thibodeau spend disproportionately long periods of time behind bars before they’ve been convicted because their cases are complicated and tend to drag on, according to the advisory committee report.
What’s more, people with severe mental illnesses tend to face more punishing conditions behind bars, such as time in isolation cells, because they can’t always be housed with other inmates. Thibodeau felt disoriented and afraid spending so much time alone in a small space without windows, she said, as the court embarked on the process of evaluating her mental competence to stand trial.
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Specialized court dockets for people with mental health needs and disabilities aren’t a substitute for the major solutions recommended by the report, such as for Maine to develop a more robust mental health system, but they show how courtrooms can adapt without waiting for the major financial investments that have yet to materialize, said legal advocates, mental health officials and court officials.
The desire to just “do it yourself, without any money” is what inspired retired Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills to come up with the model, which more quickly connects defendants to behavioral health service providers, in Portland in 2018, she told the Bangor Daily News in January. Mills’ operation inspired Justice Michaela Murphy to establish the process in Kennebec County just six months before Thibodeau’s arrest.
“One of the biggest problems [with the criminal justice system] is a failure of imagination about what are solutions,” Zach Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said. “What you’re saying about Justice Murphy [and Mills] is a wonderful counter-example.”
It meant that the court recognized Thibodeau needed an evaluation of her mental competence when she appeared before a judge following her June 3 arrest. Murphy signed an order for a competence evaluation, writing “ASAP” in blue pen at the top of a form dated June 7.
Then Thibodeau’s case was added to a special docket that meets once a month in a second floor courtroom of the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta. On those mornings, Murphy convenes a group of people who oversee the state’s mental health resources — the people who arrange the competence evaluations, coordinate hospital beds and work in the jail.
Their goal is to reduce the administrative delays that often slow down cases and, when possible, find options that allow defendants to live safely in the community while their cases unfold, such as placing them in group homes or getting them medication. If the charges are minor, the district attorney might agree to dismiss them if there’s a plan to help defendants return safely to the community.
“All I’m trying to do is be practical,” Murphy said. “These cases get filed here, and we’re trying to figure out the most practical way to minimize their correctional experience.”
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At some point, many of the mental health professionals would likely have gotten involved in the cases, she explained. But in recent years, Murphy, like Mills in Portland, had realized that the administrative coordination took time, when evaluations could already take weeks or months to complete. A rising demand was only making the bottleneck worse.
In 2015, Murphy noticed an increase in requests for the State Forensic Service to evaluate the mental competence of criminal defendants, the results of which determine if a defendant is able to understand the criminal justice process ahead of them.
So she volunteered to oversee all the competence requests to increase the level of consistency. On some days, she found herself running between courtrooms to sign off on orders, she said, and the requests only continued to rise. In 2015, judges ordered 274 competency evaluations for criminal defendants in Maine. It climbed to 583 by 2018, according to an analysis of data by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
It troubled Murphy to know that some of the sickest defendants were clearly not competent, and yet they were waiting on the outcome of the exam before the court could decide what to do next. If they were found incompetent, did they need to be hospitalized? Would the district attorney decide to drop the charges?
For most of the cases, the same few people were making the decisions, but they were spread out across the criminal justice and mental health systems, working independently. Getting everyone in a room at the same time on a regular basis — essentially a feat of scheduling and communication — sped up the decision making.
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In Thibodeau’s case, the court faced the challenge of figuring out where she could live and connecting her with the services she needed for a healthier, safer life. It didn’t want to send her back into the situation that got her in trouble with the law to begin with.
Thibodeau had been living in Augusta because her group home unexpectedly shut down, forcing her to move in with a friend. Group homes help people with disabilities with the tasks of daily life, and Thibodeau has needed that support — but hasn’t always gotten it — from an early age, growing up in the Lewiston area.
She’d been under a lot of stress after losing custody of her 9-year-old son in 2016, she said. It caused her anxiety and depression that she sometimes sought help for at the hospital.
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Reflecting on it now, it’s still hard for Thibodeau to explain why she started going into houses — what she thought were abandoned houses, she said — and taking things. She hadn’t been keeping the best company at the time, she said, including a former boyfriend. Her intellectual disability has made her susceptible to going along with behavior she has later regretted, said her lawyer and a caseworker.
“I don’t know what caused it. Just something I thought it was OK to do,” Thibodeau said. “Going to court, I felt my whole cheeks turn red when they were talking about my case. You feel embarrassed. It’s not something to be proud of.”
It was how she felt last June when she was denied bail. She didn’t think of herself as dangerous to society. “Are they talking about me? I wouldn’t hurt anyone,” she recalled.
What followed was one of the worst experiences of her life. She spent the first week and a half at the Kennebec County jail, giving the pictures she drew to other inmates to cheer them up, she said.
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A mental health worker spent at least an hour with her every day, said Slaney, the jail lieutenant. But after 10 days, she was transferred to the Androscoggin County Jail because she was technically in violation of her probation that stemmed from that jurisdiction.
When officers took her to the new facility, they put chains around her waist, which made her feel “like some kind of killer,” she said.
Her new cell was no bigger than a bathroom, and it frightened her to be locked into such a small space, alone. She wondered what would happen if there was an emergency, like a fire, and the door wouldn’t unlock, she said. She thought she might die there, never seeing daylight again.
All this while, Thibodeau’s lawyer, Don Hornblower, was working with the court to find her another group home where she could safely live while her case continued.
Hornblower doesn’t usually practice in Kennebec County. So he was taken off guard when he showed up in Murphy’s courtroom and was invited into a conference room to sit around a conference table where the team of officials ready to discuss his client’s case were waiting.
“In that room, no matter what, there’s a complete acknowledgement of realizing and leading with the fact and consequence of mental illness,” the lawyer said. “I haven’t seen anything like that in Maine. It is incredible.”
Hornblower was so encouraged by the court’s urgency that he spent the next several months transferring all of Thibodeau’s pending cases to Kennebec County. That would take time, and so would evaluating her competency — something the court did twice because it wasn’t immediately clear from the first exam how her intellectual capacity and anxiety were affecting her judgment.
In the meantime, Hornblower worked on getting her a place in a group home in Auburn, so the court would release her on bail. She was released at the end of July, seven months before her case was resolved.
At her group home, the staff helped her find a counselor and the medications she needed to address her anxiety.
“Thoughts of stealing have come in my head, and ideas and stuff, but I don’t act on them,” she said. “I think of my son. I put a picture in front of my face and say, ‘What’s more important: him or jail?’”
She threw herself into art, spending most days painting or drawing with pastels at a lamplit desk in the basement of her group home, her makeshift studio. This time, she kept her drawings, papering her bedroom walls.
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She felt healthier and more stable, but was still nervous during her final court date on Feb. 12. She sat in the back row of the courtroom until Murphy called her name, the last on the day’s docket of eight defendants, and then listened to a prosecutor read through her charges, some of which were being dropped. She entered a guilty plea to one felony count of burglary and two felony counts of theft. In exchange, she received three years of probation and credit for the 45 days in jails she had already served.
Frayla Tarpinian, the prosecutor, noted how unusual it was for someone to avoid going to prison after they’ve been convicted of a similar crime twice. This outcome, however, would allow Thibodeau to maintain the stability she had achieved since the summer. Hornblower said his client would also apply for a guardian, a person who would assume some legal decision-making powers on her behalf.
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Less than 20 minutes later, Thibodeau walked out of the courtroom, relieved to have it all behind her, she said. She focused on upcoming plans: art classes and enrolling in the Special Olympics.
Exactly one month later, the new coronavirus arrived in Maine. For Thibodeau, it means she’ll be taking those art classes online and putting her plans to transfer to another group home on hold.
Adapting to the pandemic will be more complicated for the criminal justice system, which curbed many of its operations to prevent the spread of the virus and is still figuring out how normal operations will resume in the coming months.
The disruption put Murphy’s docket on hold for March and April, but it is set to resume on May 13 via video conferencing. The judge expects to encounter obstacles.
It may be harder, for instance, to find community-based services for defendants when so much of society has shut down.
That could have an effect on Riverview Psychiatric Center, the state hospital serving people involved in the criminal justice system. It needs patients to have a place to live before it can discharge them and accept new patients. So far, the hospital, which has turned a wing of the facility into a quarantine area for newly admitted patients, hasn’t seen admissions or discharges slow down, a spokeswoman said.
But the needs of defendants have not changed, Murphy said, so the court will adjust.
“I’m convinced [these dockets] do more to effectively address the needs of this population of defendants in terms of making sure that people who are not competent spend as little time as possible in the criminal justice system,” she said. “We are determined to keep the expedited process of the cases going.”