BENNINGTON — Jared Bianchi, deputy state’s attorney in Bennington, has wrestled with the challenge of protecting the community against violent crime driven or impacted by those suffering a mental health episode while also recognizing that those individuals are struggling with an illness.
“Plain and simple, we need a full-strength forensic review board here in Bennington and all of Vermont,” says Bianchi.
Currently, issues of criminal justice and the critical decisions on placement — whether to hospitalize or discharge someone charged with a crime who has been found not competent to stand trial — are handled by one state agency: the Vermont Department of Mental Health.
According to Bianchi and his boss, Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage, those decisions can and should be made by an independent body on the state level.
They are endorsing pending legislation creating a mental health “review board” made up of individuals who would review every case with an eye toward what is best for the defendant with mental health issues and what would be best and safest for the community.
“Basically, the forensic review board would look at the whole picture,” Marthage says. “They’re looking at the person, the offense, the public safety, and placement. They might say, ‘Yes, this person wasn’t sane at the time of the offense, but now they’re treated, and maybe we’re still not okay just releasing him or her.’ That’s the goal. They would have the authority to decide after looking at the whole picture. Right now, if you are deemed not competent or deemed not sane, you are not guilty because of that. If DMH doesn’t think you satisfy their definition of needing hospital-level care, you go home. That shouldn’t happen.”
The forensic review idea is making its way through the Legislature right now. The bill would remove those decisions from DMH as the sole decider and put them in the hands of a committee that would take a larger view of the whole on a case-by-case basis — from the patient’s needs to the victim’s search for justice, and from a community safety viewpoint. The panel would go even further, establishing a “forensic facility” in which individuals would be placed who might not need the high-level of acute care provided at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, but might be a threat to community safety. These defendants would be securely housed before being released.
“I think that’s the other thing,” Bianchi says. “An order of non-hospitalization, not needing the full hospital level of care. We really don’t have that midpoint. Right now, we have the state hospital. And that’s kind of it.”
Bianchi is the lead prosecutor in the Darren Pronto murder case. Pronto was charged in the broad-daylight murder of Emily Hamann along a river path in downtown Bennington in January 2021. He was deemed incapable of standing trial after several evaluations and sent to Vermont’s only mental health hospital, just to be released from custody several weeks later.
Pronto had been accused of violent crimes before — a domestic assault and a home-invasion incident where he allegedly threatened to kill the victim and abduct their two young children. He was found not competent in the home invasion and transferred to custody of the Department of Mental Health in 2018. Eighteen months later, he was released back into the community without any notice by order of the DMH, just weeks before Hamann’s murder.
In the Pronto case, Bianchi was able to bring together all sides, including DMH, to create a groundbreaking stipulation — a first in Vermont — that mandated Pronto be released directly into the custody of the Department of Corrections if and when he was ever deemed “not in need of further hospitalization care.” That action occurred just a few weeks ago. Had that agreement not been in place at the time of DMH’s decision to release Pronto, with no viable alternative secure facility for a transfer, there was a good chance he might have been released back into the community. Pronto is now held without bail as he awaits trial for Hamann’s murder.
Bianchi’s groundbreaking agreement in the Pronto case has not been copied in other jurisdictions. There has been some interest, but so far, no other cases in the works satisfy all concerns. Bianchi feels that the type of agreement reached that impacted the Pronto case, and the creation of a forensic review board, needs to be codified into Vermont law. The Bennington prosecutor has been doing much work to pass the new forensic legislation, but he said the bill has been watered down and it’s future at the Statehouse is uncertain.
“The most recent draft that I’ve seen, it’s meaningless,” he says. “It will not have the impact that it should have. Initially, it included a forensic facility that would have these standards ... It wasn’t perfect, but it was something.”
Bianchi says the current system put defendants found incompetent to stand trial into one of two silos — either mentally ill and therefore eligible for services; or having an intellectual disability and ineligible for services, including hospitalization. There is no middle ground, he said. Many times those found to have an intellectual disability wind up right back on the street, possibly putting the public at risk.
“I have dealt with cases in the past where an individual was not deemed ‘mentally ill’ by DMH standards, but was unable to interact with the community in a non-violent manner,” Bianchi says. “Many times, those individuals were out of control, but their actions were deemed either, ‘criminal’ or ‘behavioral’ in nature, not mental illness. At a hospitalization hearing that determines where that defendant must go, the defendant must pass this ‘diagnostic gate’ before we can decide what to do, tying the hands of prosecutors and judges when it comes to safety concerns of the community and requesting help for the individual.”
“I think it would be great to have more options,” Marthage says of deciding competency and handling those offenders. “But right now, there’s no legal infrastructure for us to be able to do anything. DMH makes that determination on condition or whether to discharge and that’s about it. We deal with cases all the time that come to us via the court and law enforcement. Right now, if the DMH doesn’t want to touch them or deems hospitalization not needed, there’s really no place for them to go. A lot of these people end up back in the community, not receiving the help they need and putting the whole community in harm’s way.”
Both Marthage and Bianchi agree that besides some positive changes happening on the ground within the law enforcement community, the full-strength forensic bill needs to pass as it was originally written. If that doesn’t happen, or if Vermont doesn’t prioritize more options for cases like Pronto’s, not much is going to change.
“Law enforcement in Bennington has been working on getting an actually embedded mental health worker on these calls,” Marthage says. “I’m glad we’re moving in that direction because that could help divert some of the stuff that we’re not hearing about it until it’s really too late. That doesn’t really address long-term care. There’s zero help, especially for adults.
“Without profound changes, fundamental changes to the legal structure, oversight, and to the physical infrastructure capacity that we have right now, there’s really not much any of us can do.”
Tomorrow’s Banner reports on criminal cases involving mental health, violence, and minors with nowhere to go in the legal system.