Civil Commitment

Developments in Mental Health Law, October-December 1982 | Go to article overview

Civil Commitment


Since 1974 when the Virginia civil commitment laws were reshaped along libertarian lines, there have been complaints that judges and court-appointed defense lawyers were ignoring procedural safeguards of the law and permitting the commitment of persons who did not meet the statutory criteria of commitment. There were in addition reports (such as that based on a level of care survey summarized elsewhere in this issue)that most of the patients committed under the parens patriae criterion of "so seriously mentally ill as to be substantially unable to care for himself' did not meet that criterion and did not otherwise need hospitalization. Finally, concern has been expressed over the rising costs of pre-trial hospitalization, often in private facilities. As a consequence, the 1982 General Assembly, in House Joint Resolution No. 73, charged its Joint Subcommittee on Mental Health and Mental Retardation with conducting public hearings on civil commitment and preparing corrective legislation for the 1983 Session.

The most recent draft to emerge from the subcommittee, prepared by Delegate Warren G. Stambaugh of Arlington, suggests that the General Assembly will be presented with a good opportunity this year to undertake a complex and thoroughgoing overhaul of the civil commitment statutes. Highlights of the bill likely to be introduced by members of the Subcommittee follow.

* Tougher standards for the issuance of temporary detention orders. The present law allows for the temporary detention of anyone "mentally iii and in need of hospitalization," but requires an additional finding (e.g., "dangerousness") for commitment. The proposal may employ the commitment criteria as standards for temporary detention.

* More precision in both the police power and parens patriae standards of commitment. The police power criterion would require proof of a "recent overt act or threat" as evidence of dangerousness. The parens patriae criterion would require a showing of a substantial inability to "provide for himself or secure from others his minimally adequate nutritional, clothing, shelter, or safety needs."

* Introduction of a new criterion of commitment. In contrast to increased restrictiveness of the traditional criteria of commitment, the bill may contain a third alternative grounds of commitment based on a likelihood that the defendant will "suffer substantial mental or emotional deterioration" if not treated. …

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