The Cause of Liberty at Virginia’s General Assembly Part 3
This is the third in a series of posts that I’ve decided to do as a post-session look at the bills considered by Virginia’s General Assembly. For now I’m focusing on bills that passed both the House of Delegates and the Senate. At some later point I might also write about bills that were considered, but did not pass. In my last post (found here) I wrote about several bills relating to firearms. In this post, I want to take a look at a bill that (as far as I know) got no media attention at all. It deals with the process of involuntary commitment.
HB 475 Involuntary commitment; alters criteria for ordering mandatory outpatient treatment.
SUMMARY AS PASSED HOUSE:
Involuntary commitment; mandatory outpatient treatment. Alters the criteria for ordering a person to mandatory outpatient treatment or discharging a person for a period of mandatory outpatient treatment following involuntary commitment, replacing the requirements that the person has the capacity to understand and comply with the treatment, has expressed an interest in outpatient treatment, and has agreed to comply with the treatment with a requirement that the person has agreed to abide by the treatment plan and has the ability to do so. The bill also eliminates the requirement that providers of mandatory outpatient treatment services must have actually agreed to deliver such services before mandatory outpatient treatment may be ordered, and requires a finding that such services will be delivered to the person on an outpatient basis. The bill also provides that the duration of mandatory outpatient treatment following involuntary commitment shall not exceed 90 days, unless the order is continued. The bill also provides that mandatory outpatient treatment shall not include the use of physical force or restraint in administering medication.
Full text of bill available here (pdf).
Chief patron: Delegate David B. Albo (R) – House District 42.
Passed the House of Delegates by a “block vote,” 100-0. Passed the Senate 40-0. Not yet signed by the Governor.
For those who might not be familiar with the term “involuntary commitment” I offer the following definition: “Involuntary commitment or civil commitment is a legal process through which an individual with symptoms of severe mental illness is court-ordered into treatment in a hospital (inpatient) or in the community (outpatient).” Perhaps the most well-known example of laws that allow involuntary commitment is the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, commonly known as the Baker Act.
Involuntary commitment is permitted under Virginia law in title 37.2 section 817 (found here). HB 475 which was sponsored by Delegate David Albo who represents a district in Fairfax County. Assuming Governor McDonnell decides to sign the bill, HB 475 would reform some of the standards and procedures that currently govern involuntary commitments in Virginia.
Involuntary commitment statutes are ostensibly used to prevent a person who is mentally ill from doing harm to others if it is clear that he poses an imminent danger. Unfortunately, these statutes are prone to unnecessary commitments, thereby depriving innocent citizens of their liberty. I can personally attest to such a situation.
A man with whom my father was acquainted from the local McDonald’s was committed under Florida’s Baker Act. He was an elderly veteran of World War II and bought his coffee and newspaper most mornings at a particular McDonald’s restaurant. I remember that he drove one of those 1970s-era, gas guzzling, tank-like cars. He would have been considered eccentric by most and could be the proverbial grumpy old man from time to time. Over the years I think it would be fair to say that he grew more and more cantankerous and developed probably a bit of a short fuse. I’m also sure that he unfairly took out some of his frustrations on some of the managers and workers at the McDonald’s restaurant that he frequented. One day, apparently, this man’s less than sunny disposition must have become too much to handle and someone called the police who took him into custody at the McDonald’s (or maybe outside in the parking lot; the details escape me). He was never a free man again. Someone determined that he was mentally ill and posed a danger to others. His family/children couldn’t be bothered to care for him and he died in a government mental health facility. For the “crime” of being a cranky old man he lived out his last years in what was essentially a prison.
His plight is heartbreaking to me, but what makes this anecdote even more troubling is that the scenario has been more or less repeated all over the country for decades. People get tired of dealing with or caring for difficult people so they have them locked up. It’s all perfectly legal. Law-abiding Americans who have harmed no one are sent off for treatment that they neither want nor need and there’s not a thing they can do to stop it. Granted, I don’t doubt that these involuntary commitment procedures are used in many instances to isolate individuals who very well might be a danger to others. That is not a sufficient justification, however, for the many injustices that are perpetrated in the name of public safety.
In any event, HB 475, if it becomes law (and I hope it does), would take some steps toward insuring that the involuntary commitment process is less of an affront to our liberties (and make no mistake curtailing the liberties of any segment of society harms us all). First of all, HB 475 makes some significant changes to the criteria for determining under what circumstances a person may be ordered to participate in mandatory outpatient treatment after a period of involuntary commitment. Under existing law (link above), before a person is released from involuntary commitment, a physician must determine that the committed person:
has sufficient capacity to understand the stipulations of his treatment, has expressed an interest in living in the community and has agreed to abide by his discharge plan, [and] is deemed to have the capacity to comply with the discharge plan and understand and adhere to conditions and requirements of the treatment and services.
Delegate Albo’s bill would replace those requirements with a requirement that the person “has agreed to abide by his discharge plan and has the ability to do so.” That seems like a much simpler inquiry and it also seems like it will make it easier for a person to be released from his involuntary commitment.
Second, the bill provides that although a court will have the power to determine the length of a person’s mandatory outpatient treatment program, there is a maximum duration of 90 days. Since this is the state forcing a person to do something, placing a hard limit on it is a step in the right direction for liberty.
Finally, the bill states that “Mandatory outpatient treatment shall not include the use of restraints or physical force of any kind in the provision of the medication.” Frankly, that should have been a huge no-brainer for the General Assembly. It’s a shame that such a prohibition needs to be codified, but it’s good that they’ve put in in there, nonetheless.
Delegate Albo’s bill leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to insuring the liberty of those who get tangled up in the state’s mental health system. These small steps, however, deserve to be pointed out and commended. Let us hope that Governor McDonnell sees the need for this bill and affixes his signature to it. In addition, let us hope that this bill is only a sign of better things yet to come for the freedoms of every citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia.