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Bill would change involuntary commitment law

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill in the Alabama Legislature would change the involuntary commitment process for someone with a mental health issue, allowing judges to consider behavior over a two-year period.

In deciding to commit an individual, a probate judge could consider “the respondent’s actions occurring within the two-year period immediately preceding the hearing.”

House Bill 70 also expands the definition of “real and present danger” for involuntary commitments to include the risk that the individual may “cause, allow, or inflict serious bodily harm upon himself, herself, or another individual,” and “be unable to satisfy his or her need for nourishment, medical care, shelter, or self-protection so that there is a substantial likelihood of death, serious bodily harm, serious physical debilitation, serious mental debilitation, or life-threatening disease.”

Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, is the bill sponsor. He said it would allow judges to “take a comprehensive look at what’s going on in someone’s life to determine if you can commit them through the court system to get them some mental health treatment.”

The Alabama chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness’ Alabama  is advocating for the bill. Jimmy Walsh, an attorney and past president of NAMI, said the proposed law change would make the process easier and more responsive for families to get loved ones in crisis mental health help before they commit  a crime or hurt themselves. Once someone is in the criminal system, mental health recovery is harder, he said.

“That’s the definition of crazy,” Walsh said.

Reynolds is the former police chief in Huntsville.

“For years, the law was written or interpreted so that a person almost had to commit a crime before they could be committed,” Reynolds said. “(House Bill 70) allows a court to hear from multiple sources about the condition of a person who may be in danger of hurting themselves or someone else.”

Madison County Probate Judge Frank Barger consulted on the bill. He said one of the positive proposed changes in the legislation is the ability to transition an individual from inpatient to outpatient care by modifying the inpatient order. 

“This would allow the court to maintain a much-needed continuum of care, support, and oversight for someone suffering with negative mental health – providing inpatient stabilization, development of a treatment plan, and then a relatively seamless transition to outpatient care,” Barger said in an email to Alabama Daily News. “Case studies and this court’s own experience show that transition to well-managed outpatient programs can provide a person with the ability to engage in services and support that significantly reduce the chance involuntary and expensive inpatient care for his or her mental health is needed again in the future.”

The Alabama Department of Mental Health has reviewed and is supportive of HB70, spokeswoman Malissa Valdes-Hubert said.

Asked if the bill could make it easier to commit homeless people, Walsh said it probably would. 

Walsh also said that he absolutely believes in a person’s due process, but people in crisis aren’t rational.

“I have been in significant (legal) battles fighting for due process,” he said. “… But to think that someone who is irrational can think for themselves and make a rational decision that is bound by reasoned thought is about as popular as going to the moon without a spaceship. Neither one of them is going to happen.”

The bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and Reynolds hopes it gets considered in early February.

Co-sponsors on the bill include Rep. Parker Moore, R-Hartselle. He said mental health care is a cornerstone of his reelection campaign and significant issue for constituents.

He said lawmakers are playing “catch-up” on mental health care funding and the pandemic has  increased the need for care.

Gov. Kay Ivey last week announced $12 million in General Fund money for two new mental health crisis centers bringing the total to six statewide. Ivey and lawmakers in the last two years have funded capital investments for centers in Mobile, Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville.

“We want people to have someone to call, someone to come to them or somewhere to go if they are in a behavioral health crisis,” ADMH Commissioner Kim Boswell said.

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