Editorial: W.Va. Needs to Review Mental Health Laws
02/12/2013 - The Charleston Daily Mail
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In 2011, the state committed 3,299 people involuntarily to a state mental institution. Many were not mentally ill per se, and only 361 remained longer than the state's required 30-day observation period.
Yet all of their names were entered into the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which will preclude them from ever legally owning a firearm.
Although it takes an order from a mental health commissioner, and though legal counsel is provided to the defendant, some people are wrongly institutionalized, said Steve Canterbury, court administrator for the state Supreme Court.
The court is pushing for a less expensive and more effective program of allowing mental health professionals - not lawyers - to make the determination.
At present, anyone can file a mental hygiene petition on anyone - even children as young as 12. Some people are committed for 30 days because they are angry or on drugs.
Other states require only three to five days of observation. After the observation period, in other states a commissioner determines whether the person goes home. People who are sent home are not placed in a state or federal database and do not have their rights curtailed, Canterbury said. "All of these things seem to have been handled in other states in a way that is not quite as expensive, not quite as draconian, and does not (hold) people for days and put them on a registry for the rest of their lives," he said. "By doing it that way, you have preserved that individual's rights."
Justice Menis Ketchum recently told lawmakers the state could save $3 million a year by changing the way people are committed. Changes also would protect the rights of individuals.
Canterbury said he hopes legislators will resolve the situation in legislative interim meetings, which means that absent a special session, the earliest the changes could be made is next year.
Why wait? Lawmakers have a duty to protect the rights of people from an expensive and ineffective system - now, not later.