A mentally unwell man burning a house down so he would get locked up shows why a specialist mental health court is needed, an academic says.
Scott Peter Bulman, 32, walked right up to firefighters and announced he was to blame for a blaze they were fighting.
On Thursday, he was sentenced in the Palmerston North District Court to 26 months’ jail for his crime.
Judge Lance Rowe said Bulman told police he started the fire at a flat in Palmerston North in January because he was having thoughts about harming people, so he needed to be locked up instead of acting on those thoughts.
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He suffers from various mental difficulties including borderline intellectual functioning and other issues stemming from a traumatic brain injury he suffered in a car crash as a teenager.
While agreeing Bulman needed intensive one-on-one work with a psychologist, his history of offending meant the scales tipped towards keeping the public safe, the judge said.
He asked the Parole Board to consider Bulman for release as soon as possible.
Auckland University of Technology law professor Warren Brookbanks, who has been teaching mental health law for more than 25 years, said people like Bulman were not legally insane but clearly needed help.
“They really do tend to fall between the cracks.”
People with intellectual disabilities could be remanded off for care, but defendants had to be found to have a permanent impairment, Brookbanks said.
To qualify, they had to have an IQ of 70 or less and have significant issues dealing with issues such as communication or self-direction.
Brookbanks said carving mental health cases out into their own court, like what already happens with family violence, was the best option.
Doing so would enable judges, medical professionals and other experts to ensure the focus was put on helping defendants with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities, he said.
Imprisoning people who fall into those categories could have long-lasting effects, including deeper mental illness, Brookbanks said.
Defence lawyer Steve Winter said Bulman got support, but managed to get himself to a point where assistance was pulled back.
“He was probably doing too well.
“As the help backed off, he became uncomfortable.”
Sending Bulman to jail for what were “cries for help” would achieve nothing, as he would return to the community with the same issues, Winter said.
Bulman had a history of arson, getting community detention for destructive fires he lit in 2008 and 2009. The later of those two happened at a residential care facility he lived in, according to reports from the time.
His latest arson involved him breaking into a flat near where he lived and sneaking around, lighting curtains as he went.
He even lit the curtain of the window he used to enter and exit the flat.
Bulman watched the fire from his house, and saw the firefighters turn up.
He walked up to one of the firefighters, said what he had done, and was soon arrested by police.
The judge gave Bulman a generous discount for his disabilities.
“I have to ask myself ‘what are the purposes I’m trying to achieve here?’.
“While on the one hand there is clearly reduced culpability because of your psychological issues, there is also a very real need to look at the risk to the public.
“This is a very difficult case, Mr Bulman.”
WHERE TO GET HELP:
Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757
Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116
Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email email@example.com
0800 WHATSUP children’s helpline – phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).