- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

RICHMOND Some mentally ill Virginians have spent years locked up in state psychiatric hospitals after entering insanity pleas to petty crimes otherwise punishable by no more than a year in jail, a state study has found.
The misdemeanors include such offenses as being publicly drunk, cursing a police officer and spitting in public. One man accused of breaking a window has been confined for 13 years.
The Virginia State Crime Commission studied the problem at the behest of the General Assembly. A draft report was presented to the bipartisan legislative commission this week.
State Sen. Janet Howell, a commission member who requested the study, said she was appalled to learn that state law allowed indefinite confinement of nonviolent offenders who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
"You have people serving much longer times than they would have to serve if they had just entered a guilty plea," said Mrs. Howell, Fairfax County Democrat.
She said defense attorneys have begun to note the disparity and advice against insanity pleas. Mentally ill defendants can plead guilty and serve short jail terms, but they are more likely to commit other crimes after being released, having not received treatment, Miss Howell said.
"Public safety is lessened by the policy, which is the opposite of what you might think," she said.
Data prepared for presentation to the commission showed that of more than 250 people placed in Virginia state mental institutions for crimes, 63 committed misdemeanors. The average confinement for those 63 persons is three years.
"It's troubling to me that someone could be locked up in a mental health facility far beyond the time they would have spent in jail if convicted," said state Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia Beach Republican and the commission's vice chairman.
Mrs. Howell said she will introduce legislation that would limit to one year the state's confinement of misdemeanor defendants who plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
If authorities believe a patient should not be released, they would have to prove their case in court in a civil commitment proceeding.
Under the current system, patients can petition a forensics review board annually for release over five years and every other year after that but the burden is on patients to prove they would not endanger others or themselves.
Valerie Marsh, state executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, supports Mrs. Howell's proposal. Mrs. Howell said she hopes the commission also will endorse the proposal.
"The situation now is a waste of tax dollars, a waste of space," Miss Marsh said. "It's very unfair. There are people who need those beds."
It costs about $160,000 a year to maintain a patient in a state mental health facility, according to the commission's data.
The commission's draft report says mental heath officials, concerned about protecting the public, in some cases have been too reluctant to release patients who have committed crimes while mentally ill.
"For those charged with misdemeanors, particularly nonviolent misdemeanors, there may be little or no justification at all for extended confinement," according to the draft report.
Richard Kellogg, the state's mental health commissioner, said changes are needed.
"It's no benefit to the state, and inappropriate for the state, to keep people beyond their legal responsibility under a 'not guilty by reason of insanity' plea," he said.
However, he said the mental health system should not lose sight of its public safety responsibility.

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