Whiting Forensic Hospital patient Hal Bassow testifies remotely before the Judiciary Committee.

The legislature’s Judiciary Committee wrestled Wednesday with how the state handles involuntarily committed psychiatric patients when they reach the end of their court-imposed term of commitment.

The panel heard testimony on a bill that would change the review process for patients who serve their terms after being committed by a court as a result of a not-guilty acquittal by reason of insanity.

The proposal essentially takes the Connecticut Psychiatric Security Review Board and state superior courts out of the process once the patient reaches the end of their court-imposed term and directs prosecutors to petition a probate court to recommit acquittees who continue to pose a danger to themselves or others.

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The change was controversial among speakers testifying before the committee.

Some, like the Office of the Chief Public Defender, argued the bill would fix the state’s current system, which more easily allows offenders to be recommitted and penalized for longer than courts had envisioned. Sometimes those commitments last for longer than the maximum criminal sentence allowed for the offense under which they were found guilty.

Several patients at Whiting Forensic Hospital in Middletown agreed on this point when they addressed the committee through virtual testimony. Hal Bassow, a Whiting patient for more than a decade, told lawmakers that patients feel as though they have been committed indefinitely, regardless of their court-imposed term.

“When you come to an institution such as Whiting and under the Psychiatric Security Review Board, you have that stigma that says you are indefinitely committed for the rest of your life on a term that will never end,” Bassow said. “It’s not fairness. It’s not justice and it’s certainly not recovery and the real madness [is] we’re told to tolerate this in our state.”

Others, like the state Division of Criminal Justice, argued the change was both premature and potentially dangerous. Waterbury Judicial District State’s Attorney Maureen Platt said that the PSRB was a specialized body familiar with the mental health conditions of the patients under its purview. As of Tuesday, she said that amounted to a group of 141 patients, 37 of which had been recommitted.

Replacing the process with a less specialized procedure posed a greater risk to society, Platt said. Although prosecutors would still be petitioning for recommittals, she said they would have a more difficult time securing those orders from a probate court than they would from a superior court.

“It is a vastly different standard,” Platt said. “We would argue public safety would be jeopardized and the probate court could not consider the danger to the community.”

Meanwhile, Platt and others urged the Judiciary Committee to wait until a working group, which was established by a state law passed last year, finishes its current review of the process. That group is expected to report back to policymakers in January. 

A member of that task force, Andrew Reynolds, offered to keep the committee updated on the panel’s work. Reynolds, whose niece, Jessica, was murdered by a psychiatric hospital escapee in 1989, said the group’s recommendations may include drastic changes. 

“This could include the dissolution of the PSRB or transformation of the PSRB. Why change things until the final report is finished?” Reynolds said.

At times during the lengthy hearing, which included 80 other agenda items, Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, suggested to opponents that the change would not necessarily result in the release of every patient who hits the end of their term as prosecutors would continue to petition for recommittal when they deemed it appropriate. 

“What I’m wrestling with is a court at some point determined that this individual was going to be penalized for a finite number of years,” he said. “The jurisdiction of the PSRB falls within that finite term of years.”