Ervin Skousen describes a scale. The rights of mentally ill offenders are on one side. There, they balance precariously against society's need for safety and protection.
Two years ago, the Utah Legislature faced the issue of how to prevent mentally ill individuals who have committed serious crimes from being returned to the community too soon. It created the Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB), a five-member panel that still struggles to define its role and polish its procedures, amid both praise and criticism from mental-health providers and corrections officials."We're an independent board directly under the governor," Skousen, panel chairman, said. "When the State Hospital decides that someone has received maximum treatment benefit and needs to be transferred out, they petition us to review the case. Our position is to protect the public from those who are insane. We try to keep a dangerous offender in a secure facility or in the community in such strict control he maintains his medication and balance."
Most of the cases they review are people who have been found guilty and mentally ill and sent to the hospital. The board can retain someone at the State Hospital if a hearing indicates he could benefit from additional treatment, or it can refer the case to the Board of Pardons with one of three recommendations: The individual should serve the rest of his term in prison, he should be placed on parole under Adult Parole and Probation as a community release, or jurisdiction should be returned to the PSRB to contract for services in the community.
The latter recommendation has seldom been used because the board lacks funding to contract services. Early indications are that the board will get some funding for those services this year from the Legislature.
The board hasn't worked smoothly yet, Skousen admits, because of delays. One man, for instance, was recommended for release in July. His hearing didn't occur until January.
"We had three meetings with Pardons to try to expedite hearings," he said. "We agreed there will be a hearing within 60 days and preferably in 30."
The PSRB meets monthly and has reviewed 24 people so far. Every six months, it must review the mental-health status of people under its jurisdiction. The board's jurisdiction cannot exceed the longest sentence an offender could have received if he'd been convicted without the mental-illness factor.
"The law wasn't defined well," said Dallas Earnshaw, State Hospital forensics program director. "Things haven't been running very smoothly yet. It's too cumbersome. They should be able to meet as often as we need them to. They don't. It tends to clog up the system. By the time we recommend to the PSRB and they refer it to Pardons and it's heard, conditions can change. We've had people say they wish we'd just put them in jail and let them do their time. It would be faster and easier."
"The system's improving," Skousen said. "It's starting to work for us. But we are not a rubber stamp. We have to weigh a lot of factors. Our value is we are independent of both the State Hospital and the Board of Pardons."