Jail for mentally unwell offenders with no place to go highlights funding shortfall: lawyers

At least two Taranaki men, with serious mental health issues, have gone to prison this year, not because of the ...
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At least two Taranaki men, with serious mental health issues, have gone to prison this year, not because of the seriousness of their offending, but due to a lack of community-based options to help them.

A New Plymouth lawyer has labelled the imprisonment of vulnerable and mentally ill offenders who have nowhere else to go as a "disgrace".

Nathan Bourke made the comment during a recent hearing in the New Plymouth District Court, which involved his client Richard Rewiti.

Before these court proceedings Rewiti had no previous convictions. The 20-year-old suffers from schizophrenia and has a history of substance abuse.

New Plymouth lawyer Nathan Bourke reached out to politicians in an attempt to find solution for his at risk client.
SIMON O'CONNOR/STUFF

New Plymouth lawyer Nathan Bourke reached out to politicians in an attempt to find solution for his at risk client.

In early June, Rewiti was arrested and charged after he smashed holes in the walls and damaged a television set at the Tui Ora run supported accommodation residence in New Plymouth where he had been living.  As a result of this, he was kicked out.

He then went to stay at the emergency shelter on Beach St in Fitzroy but after becoming angry, he punched a hole in the door.

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Offenders, who have mental health issues, regularly appear in court and lawyers say their circumstances highlight an ...
CHARLOTTE CURD/FAIRFAX NZ

Offenders, who have mental health issues, regularly appear in court and lawyers say their circumstances highlight an under-resourcing of community based services.

Rewiti was promptly evicted from there and was effectively living on the street.  In order to find shelter, he broke into a New Plymouth business in early June, where police found him a short time later.

The following day, Rewiti broke into another New Plymouth business looking for money but did not find any.

Facing a total of four charges from this chain of events, and with no place to go, Rewiti was remanded into custody.

"He spent a month in prison basically because he had no place to go," Bourke said.

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For Bourke, who received legal aid to assist Rewiti, the frustration began when he tried, and failed, to find support for his client in the community.

He made numerous calls on his client's behalf but despite a recommendation from a psychiatrist that Rewiti needed supported accommodation, no bed was made available.

While Bourke said there was sympathy for Rewiti's situation, there was little practical help.

"I'm a lawyer with all these resources and if I can't find something, how is a 20-year-old with schizophrenia and psychosis meant to?," he said.

In the end, Bourke emailed Whanganui MP Chester Borrows for help, who in turn forwarded the concerns directly to Health Minister Jonathan Coleman.

At Rewiti's sentencing, a bed was found for him at Taranaki's acute inpatient mental health unit with follow-up support offered following his discharge.  He was also convicted and sentenced to nine months' supervision.

Rewiti's experience has not been an isolated one in the New Plymouth District Court in 2017.

In April, a Taranaki mother had to resort to shelling out $100 a night to keep a roof over her mentally unwell son's head  due to a lack of community resources. 

Bail conditions prevented him from living at home and there were no other options other than a motel room.

 A month earlier, Andrew Wharehoka was jailed for seven days on multiple charges of wilful trespass.  Homeless, bankrupt and suffering from psychosis, Wharehoka was trespassed from about 24 places around New Plymouth.

He received sympathy from the sentencing judge, who admitted the 29-year-old had fallen through the cracks. 

Experienced defence lawyer Paul Keegan believed the situation was "getting worse". 

"Often the court is left in the middle without appropriate resources or options to deal with these people," he said.

"The problem is a resourcing one."

He said there were service gaps in terms of the amount of accommodation available in the community along with counselling options and monitoring. 

Becky Jenkins, Taranaki District Health Board's general manager planning, funding and population health, said it contracted two residential providers to provide supported accommodation in the community.

Pathways has a total of 19 beds, six of which are for older clients, while Tui Ora has eleven residential spots.

The average length of stay for Pathways' older clients is about three years and four months while others stay in its other accommodation for up to about eight months, Jenkins said. The average stay for Tui Ora's residential clients is about 15 months.

Jenkins said residential services offered by Pathways were currently at a premium.

"Tui Ora has a steady flow of people requiring the service and demand remains stable," she said.

Jenkins said home-based support was also offered by non-governmental organisations and the frequency of visits depend on the needs of the client but can be up to twice daily.

 - Stuff

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