March 30, 1998 in Nation/World

Bill Weighs Public Safety, Rights Of Mentally Ill Law Would Expand Power Of Judges To Commit People To Mental Wards Against Their Will

By The Spokesman-Review
 

It began with a tragedy - a retired fireman randomly murdered while returning from a Seattle Mariners game with his family.

The killer had fallen through cracks between the courts and mental hospitals, a paranoid schizophrenic who didn’t get treatment after a previous crime.

The tragedy last year angered lawmakers. Their attempt to fill the cracks should be signed into law soon by Gov. Gary Locke.

Sponsors of the legislation promise better protection of the public from people who are dangerously mentally ill.

The bill expands the power of judges to commit people to mental wards against their will. It passed the House and Senate unanimously as the ex-fireman’s family watched from the gallery.

“To be honest, I don’t know (if) anything will make us feel better,” said Don Plucker, the victim’s son-in-law. “But the whole family feels we’ve accomplished something here.”

The issue isn’t without controversy. Public safety may be served, treatment providers say, but the solution could bog down the state system that serves the mentally ill.

Instead of steering mentally ill people away from hospital wards, they’re now required to admit them in large numbers.

Involuntary commitments for mentally ill criminal defendants, which require a judge’s order, are currently allowed only in felony cases. Evaluations help courts determine competency and, in some cases, keep defendants from harming themselves.

The new bill requires people who show a “likelihood of serious harm” to be held, even if they have committed a minor offense, like shoplifting.

Officials expect that change to increase the demand for beds in state psychiatric wards by at least 10 percent.

But legislators, following a national trend of downsizing mental institutions, recently cut funding for two 30-bed wards in the state. One of the closures may be at Eastern State Hospital, say state officials.

How can more people be committed into wards that are getting smaller?

“That’s the challenge the Legislature has given us,” said Jann Hoppler, director of the state Mental Health Division.

Outpatient services intended to help the majority of the mentally ill may have to be cut to fund the proposed legislation, she said.

“In the end, there will be people no longer served, or fewer people served,” Hoppler said.

Spokane County officials told commissioners last month the bill may cost them an additional $500,000 a year.

With wards shrinking at the 300-bed Eastern State Hospital, county officials say costly alternatives could be necessary. One idea is to staff rented hotel rooms around the clock with nurses.

“It’s hard to lobby against a public safety initiative, but as an administrator in a system getting an under-funded mandate, it worries me,” said Kasey Kramer, head of the county social services department.

Many provisions of the 55-page bill are universally praised.

Records and clinical evaluations must be shared between hospitals and courts. And the bill promises more treatment.

Jan Dobbs, head of the Spokane Mental Health office, which oversees involuntary commitments, says the bill should help many people in need, depending on how it’s put into place.

Some portions won’t become law until 1999, giving mental health officials time to interpret its provisions.

“This law will certainly bring treatment to the forefront,” Dobbs said. “The system will now be aware, and you may get treatment you need.”

For that reason, a group representing the family members of the mentally ill applaud the bill. They call it needed tough love - a temporary loss of freedom in exchange for a later guarantee of treatment.

“Before, we had trouble getting help for people relapsing,” said Dan Bilson, legislative co-chair of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Washington.

“This will allow the system to give more help when people are in a condition.”

But questions remain about the bill.

Dobbs’ staff suggests involuntary treatment as a last resort, recognizing the expense and invasion of clients’ rights.

Her office recommended lock-down for just one-third of the 2,400 people referred for evaluation, more often opting for treatment that allowed the patient to remain in the community.

“I think we are all going to remember that mentally ill person who committed some heinous crime,” said Dobbs. “But are they the higher risk group (than the general public)? I don’t know.”

During debate on the bill, public defenders and advocates for the mentally ill protested what they called potential civil rights violations.

Kramer, the county administrator, agrees. “On one hand, you are going to ensure a higher degree of public safety,” he said. “But on the other hand, what about the civil liberties of people?”

The state public defenders association was critical of provisions that give the state authority to keep convicted criminals in mental institutions for the full length of their sentence.

“Yes, we need to do something to prevent tragedies, but it shouldn’t be this particular solution,” said Robert Boruchowitz, president of the Washington Defenders Association.

But the story of Stan Stevenson, the murdered former fire captain, swayed legislators. Stevenson, a Spokane native, was a fun-loving man, so popular that 250 people showed up at his retirement party.

His murderer, Dan Van Ho, can’t explain why he stabbed the 61-year-old father of five with a kitchen knife.

Following his previous arrest for stealing a bicycle, Van Ho’s psychiatrist recommended he get treatment, but was ignored.

“Everything that is designed to protect citizens on the street - every department, every tool, failed” with Van Ho, said Plucker.

“We hope this helps bring some change.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

THE LAW

Gov. Locke is expected to sign a bill expanding the power of judges to commit people to mental wards against their will. The bill requires people who show a “likelihood of serious harm” to be held, even if they have committed a minor offense, like shoplifting.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE LAW Gov. Locke is expected to sign a bill expanding the power of judges to commit people to mental wards against their will. The bill requires people who show a “likelihood of serious harm” to be held, even if they have committed a minor offense, like shoplifting.


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