ACLU questions involuntary commitment changes

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A panel of Wyoming lawmakers is pushing changes to the state law governing procedures for the involuntary hospitalization of people for mental health treatment.

But some who deal with the state’s existing mental health system say the most pressing need is for more facilities to house the people.

The Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee has endorsed a general overhaul of state law on involuntary hospitalizations in the legislative session that starts next week.

Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He said involuntary hospitalizations generally occur after a person attempts suicide or when someone who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia experiences an outbreak of problems.

Gingery said tragedies across the country have highlighted the importance of getting people necessary mental health treatment when they need it.

“With mass shootings going on and those type of events, many states across the nation are trying to improve their statutes that deal with people that have mental illness and making sure that the state resources are made available to them in their time of need,” Gingery said in a recent interview.

Gingery said in the aftermath of many mass shootings and similar situations, it becomes apparent that the person had some kind of contact with the state beforehand and that the system failed the individual. He said he regards addressing the involuntary hospitalization issue as the most important item the Legislature will consider.

Current state law requires people hospitalized involuntarily to be evaluated within 24 hours. If they are held longer, they are entitled to a judicial hearing within 72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays.

Under the bill the Judiciary Committee has endorsed, a person would have to be evaluated by within four hours of being detained. If they’re kept in custody, they would have to be evaluated again within no more than 36 hours.

If authorities wanted to keep a person hospitalized involuntarily longer, the committee bill calls for a county attorney to bring action in court. The bill specifies that such court hearings would have to be held within 96 hours, again excluding weekends and holidays. If a jury hearing were required, it would have to be held within 15 days and the person could be held involuntarily while that played out.

Linda Burt, director of the ACLU in Wyoming, also represents people in involuntary hospitalization hearings as an attorney. She said her group has concerns about the committee bill.

“Specifically, from the very start, one of the things it does is it really weakens any kind of due-process protections that people have,” Burt said. “When you’re talking about an emergency detention for mental health care, you’re talking about someone’s liberty interest. You’re taking them away from their home, from their family from their job, you are forcibly detaining them, and there needs to be some very strict due-process protections in order to ensure that the detention meets the criteria of the law.”

Joe Baron, Crook County attorney, said he sees the most pressing issue as being not so much how the state goes through the process of getting people hospitalized involuntarily as what to do with them after they are in custody.

“The problem we have as county attorneys is the state lacks the proper facilities for people that are involuntarily committed,” Baron said. “I’ve been doing this since 1986, and nothing has changed.”

Baron said there have been cases in which his county has found it had no place to send a patient after the State Hospital in Evanston as well as local and regional hospitals reported they had no available beds.

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