A Milwaukee County Bureaucrat’s Immoral Utilitarianism

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, there’s a shocking story entitled, “Mental Health Exec Defends Sex Crime Risk,” about the dangerous practice of placing female mental patients with male mental patients. John Chianelli, the county administrator of the Behavioral Health Division,

told county supervisors during a closed-door session last month that segregating men and women would result in more violence.

“It’s a trade-off,” he said. “Putting 24 aggressive male patients into a male-only unit would increase the level of violence in the unit.”

Chianelli’s remarks came during a County Board committee called into closed session on April 14 to find out why there are reports of an increasing number of sexual assaults at the county facility, including the rape of a 22-year-old pregnant woman last summer.

His comments are detailed in a four-page letter by Supervisor Lynne De Bruin recapping points he made at the closed session. Two other supervisors who attended the meeting of the County Board’s Health and Human Needs Committee verified the account.

The Journal Sentinel obtained the letter through a request under the state’s open records law.

The trade-off Chianelli’s talking about is his decision to place women at risk of sexual assault from men, supposedly to reduce the risk of physical assaults between men otherwise segregated in a male-only ward.

It’s not as though Chianelli ignores the risk of female patients being raped — he’s well aware of that risk, and was willing to impose it on female patients:

Chianelli defended mixed-gender units as a way to reduce the likelihood of violence by male patients against other male patients. He also conceded that such units at the Mental Health Complex “cause more sexual problems,” De Bruin’s letter says.

Chianelli reviewed medical literature and found, “Going to gender-based units trades violence for sexual assaults.”

County supervisors called Chianelli into a meeting to discuss that case and the overall policy of sexual contact between patients. According to De Bruin’s letter and the remarks of other supervisors at the meeting, Chianelli told them that patients had a right to express themselves sexually. De Bruin agreed but said that right ends when they are placed in the county’s acute psychiatric unit. A large majority of those patients are involuntarily committed.

Such conditions would be horrific for anyone, but consider these patients’ particular circumstances: most are involuntarily committed, due to the extreme nature of their disorders. Expressing themselves, some against others, through rape is no “expression” that Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, or America should ever countenance.

(Coincidentally, there’s a post at the blog Volokh Conspiracy that proposes a way to reduce prison assaults: segregate same gender inmates by size and weight to reduce the incidence of assaults. Note the distinction: the moral course is to reduce assaults, not engineer a so-called trade-off. There’s no acceptable trade to be had.)

It’s hard to overestimate the immorality of Chianelli’s policy, of this cold utilitarian, deciding for someone’s safety over another’s, rather than moving all the world to reduce violence wherever he sees it. A man who should be dedicated to improving the conditions of each and every mental patient instead trades the safety of some for that of others.

One does not have to speculate, but instead should readily see, that Chianelli’s willingness to trade the safety of female patients so blithely has both an immorality and a perversity to it.

Immoral as it does not respect the rights of any individual involuntarily confined as a mental patient, but also perverse because it shows a disordered confusion between expression and sexual assault.

Chianelli’s theory, and its implementation, is profoundly wrong.

I seldom call for someone’s resignation from office, although I have said that some officeholders are undeserving of their positions.

Chianelli’s disregard for the safety of mental patients as individuals makes him unfit to serve. He should be removed at the earliest opportunity, never to return to a similar position of authority. Though he might serve in other ways, he has shown himself incapable of the judgment his current position requires.

(The story notes that Chianelli has now sought legal counsel. I’m sure he will need a lawyer; he could use a course or two in moral philosophy while he’s at it.)

Those in government who would allow Chianelli to continue in office would bear culpability for failing to address adequately his egregious errors. In doing so, they, too, would share some responsibility for both Chianelli’s immoral and perverse policy, and its consequences.

In this one sees a test: Will government do the right thing, and act swiftly and comprehensively, or will it merely turn away and hope memories fade?

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