Bank robbery leads to questions about crime, mentally ill

By Matt Porter

July 1, 2013 Updated Jul 1, 2013 at 7:31 PM EDT

Conklin, NY (WBNG Binghamton) Lori Hawk is worried her son might kill someone.

Hawk is mother to John DeSantis, 24, who's been in an out of jail several times, most recently for attempting to rob the M&T Bank in downtown Binghamton.

She says John should get the help he needs -- she says he has schizophrenia -- rather than rot in a jail cell.

As hospitals have cut back on keeping people with serious mental illnesses in longterm care, the number of people who need help and who are instead in prisons, like DeSantis, has jumped to 16 percent across the country.

That's triple the amount there were thirty years ago according to a 2010 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff's Association.

Hawk said John grew up like any other boy. She recently showed off a box filled with his soccer trophies, and pictures of him playing with his two sisters.

But as her son grew into an adult, she said he changed and started drinking heavily.

"He seemed pretty OK until he'd get somebody with alcohol," Hawk said.

Hawk said his illnesses has grown to the point of instilling fear, and that her son isn't capable of managing his health.

"It think in a psychotic state, I believe he would kill some people and himself," she said. "That I do believe."

She said John started to become paranoid of different things.

Most recently, she said John became confused about who his father was. She said he had come to believe a fallen firefighter with the last name "Santos" was his real parent.

Hawk showed a family tree where John had crossed out several relative's names, including his dad.

"Everything is crossed out if he didn't like it," she said.

She said doctors diagnosed her son with schizophrenia in 2010.

Hawk remembers her last conversation with John weeks before the robbery.

"I says, 'Do you still think this isn't your father?' He says, 'I know that's not my father.' I said, 'Do you think I'm your mother?' He says, 'No, I don't know who you are either,'" she said.

Two weeks later John held up the M&T bank on Exchange Street where police arrested him.

He was last known to be at the Broome County Correctional Facility.

"It stinks," Hawk said. "He's going to keep going to jail because that's what's going to happen."

Hawk found several unfilled prescriptions at her son's apartment.

DeSantis himself wrote in a journal that everything he did led to "jails, rehab, death."

Mental health advocate Keith Leahey said cuts in in-patient treatments have pushed some people who are severely mentally ill into prisons.

"It's almost like the death of a million cuts," Leahey said of mental health programs.

In Broome County, the mental health budget has held flat for the past five years.

"As mental health investments nationally began to decrease," Leahey said, "The prison population began to explode."

In 1955 , there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. In 2005, there was one psychiatric bed for every 3,000 Americans.

Broome County Mental Health Commissioner Arthur Johnson said health services rely on out-patient care to help as psychiatric institutionalization has been seen as expensive and controversial.

"The state will say that every one has access to care and they do," Johnson said, "It's do they follow through with that care is the critical question."

Johnson said every patient has a civil right to refuse treatment unless they become a danger to themselves or others.

In New York, "Kendra's Law" allows courts to order people with serious mental illness that have known arrest records or histories of not following prescribed treatments to be forced into outpatient programs.