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Pittsburgh leader says it's time to fix mental health treatment after 2 random attacks

2 random attacks in Pittsburgh raise questions about safety, mental health treatment
2 random attacks in Pittsburgh raise questions about safety, mental health treatment 04:23

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Two random attacks on innocent people in Downtown Pittsburgh in June have raised public alarm and concerns about the criminal justice system being broken.

In each of these attacks, the alleged attacker has been known to police, who said they are experiencing homelessness and suffering from addiction, mental illness, or both. They've been arrested time and again but have seen little or no jail time or have not gotten the help they need.

Last week, police arrested Jameel Huff for randomly attacking 73-year-old Jan Levinson, who fell to the sidewalk and cracked his head on the concrete. Asked to explain, Huff told police he believed Levinson to be a pedophile. Asked why, Huff said, "He heard it in his mind."

But this was not Huff's first encounter with police. According to court records, he's been arrested nine times in the past five years for crimes ranging from disorderly conduct, harassment, drug possession and theft. 

But in each case, he was given nothing more than probation. And despite exhibiting mental and behavioral problems, there is no record of him being referred to treatment. Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt says the system is failing to protect the public and get people like Huff the help they need.

"It's frustrating for our social work team," Schmidt said. "It's frustrating for me. It's frustrating for all of us because they see these folks all the time. They know they need help. We know they don't need criminal justice. But they also know if they don't get the help, they're going to end up in the criminal justice system."

While mental health professionals say mentally ill people are no more inclined to violence than the rest of the population, Camila Alarcon-Chelecki of the city's Office of Community Health and Safety says some repeat offenders are continually returned to the street without treatment. Their conditions worsen, and violence is often the result.

"The reason they become violent is because they're untreated," Alarcon-Chelecki said. "Their needs are untreated. People who are very sick shouldn't be outside with no services."

Earlier in June, police arrested Shurontaya Festa in a brutal attack on 18-year-old Sofia Mancing. Asked why, Festa told police she believed Mancing had been stalking her.

Like Huff, police say Festa has had a history of mental and behavioral problems and had been previously arrested for disorderly conduct, fighting and harassment. But instead of treatment, she was repeatedly given probation even as her offenses grew worse.

"So many of the people we see, we do see over and over again," Schmidt said. "When they're committing these lower-level incidents, we have the opportunity to get them the help they need."

But in case after case, the system has returned offenders to the street only to re-offend. In the past two years, police have arrested Arnez Johnson 13 times Downtown for theft, open-air drug use, disorderly conduct and exposing himself to women workers.

Despite police testimony that Johnson was drug addicted and mentally ill, judges repeatedly released him until he was ultimately accused of sexually assaulting a woman Downtown. Johnson is now in jail without bail, but Schmidt says the system fails to intercede before it comes to that.

"So they don't escalate to where they're causing violence," Schmidt said. "And then it is too late because the criminal justice system is the only option."

Schmidt said the system is broken, and given these repeated failures, is calling for a summit of police, prosecutors, judges and addiction and mental health providers to begin fixing it.

"What I see that needs to happen is everyone comes together to figure out these problems," Schmidt said. "We all need to come to the table and take ownership of what portions we're responsible for and what we can do better."

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