District judge, public defender explain civil commitment process in state

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While Sen. Ben Kieckhefer of Reno says the system designed to keep guns away from the mentally ill is broken, the judge and public defender who manage that system in Northern Nevada say it’s not that simple.Kieckhefer raised the issue saying that, in Northern Nevada, 1,184 petitions to involuntarily commit potentially dangerous individuals were filed in the past two years but only seven people were actually committed.That commitment is what triggers a report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. People listed in NICS are barred from buying guns.“People suffering mental illness who pose a danger to themselves and others should be prevented from buying guns,” Kieckhefer said when he announced plans to develop legislation on the subject.Washoe District Court Judge Chuck Weller conducts the hearings that decide who is committed and who is set free for most of Northern Nevada.He said there are far fewer involuntary commitment hearings now than just a few years ago.One reason, he said, is that it’s public defender Kathy O’Leary’s job to explain the consequences of an involuntary commitment.“When people realize all the things that happen with involuntary, they stay voluntary,” he said.O’Leary said over time, more training for those involved in the process and “the exercise of professional and appropriate psychiatric decisions has led to more cases being dismissed.” She said those dismissals mean either the discharge of a patient or converting his status to voluntary hospitalization, which doesn’t trigger the report that bars some one from buying a gun.Kieckhefer said when he first called for changes that, maybe, voluntary commitments should also trigger the report to NICS. He hasn’t yet finalized the bill draft and couldn’t be reached for comment on Saturday.O’Leary said a weapons bar is far from the only consequence of commitment. Those individuals are typically barred from occupations that require firearms, their professional licenses may be denied, revoked or limited in a number of professions and then there are the more personal consequences: “the social and cultural stigma of being deemed mentally ill is widespread.”As a result, Weller said most people placed in a Legal 2000 — involuntary 72 hour psychiatric evaluation — choose voluntary hospitalization and evaluation instead. That decision, he said, is theirs to make.O’Leary and Weller also pointed out that there are many people who can initiate the commitment process including any law enforcement officer, doctors, psychologists, marriage therapists, counselors and social workers. Family members also can ask that some one be taken into custody for evaluation.They also said the vast majority of those ordered held 72 hours and evaluated are released after recovering. Often that means sobering up, coming down from a drug high or simply getting back on their medications.Too often, Weller said, the problems happen because people with chronic psychological conditions stop taking their medications. He said he understands why that happens.“Some of the drugs they give people have terrible side effects,” Weller said. “Tremors, drooling ... terrible side effects.”O’Leary made clear it’s difficult to get an involuntary commitment order and rightfully so.“Drastic penalties of imprisonment and forced medication are a profound abridgment of individual liberties,” she said. “The impact continues long after release.”She said protecting those constitutional liberties means involuntary commitment requires the highest degree of proof that the person suffers a serious mental illness and is a danger to himself or others.Weller said those requirements mean each patient must have full due process to protect their rights.According to both Weller and O’Leary, she, the prosecutor and the medical professionals meet with every patient. They evaluate each case and make a recommendation about the case. Weller said many of the cases never reach his courtroom because they are resolved at that level.He added that, in almost every case, his responsibility is to follow the recommendations of the professional psychiatrists and psychologists who evaluate the person.“Judges are not to substitute their judgment for the doctor’s,” he said.O’Leary agreed with that assessment.Kieckhefer said in late-January that he was working with the courts, law enforcement, mental health professionals and others to “create a law that will work for Nevada.”


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