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State high court wants mental health program altered

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Supreme Court wants lawmakers to revamp a previously unsuccessful pilot program meant to identify and treat mentally ill individuals before they become dangerous.

Linda Artimez, the state Supreme Court's director of mental hygiene services, said the Legislature created a pilot program in 2010 that would allow judges in Kanawha, Boone and Lincoln counties to issue a "treatment compliance order" instead of committing someone to a mental health facility.

The order requires individuals to seek treatment for psychological issues. That could mean taking drugs prescribed to them for their mental health problems or making regular visits to a psychiatrist.

The order would allow courts to sentence people to treatment if judges decide they could become a danger to themselves or others without that treatment.

The option has never been very popular with judges, however.

"It's never worked because it's too restrictive," Artinez said. "Nobody uses it."

Current state law on treatment compliance orders is complex. Before a judge can issue an order, the person in question has to have been hospitalized two or more times within the last two years due to mental illness or drug addiction, or have committed at least one violent crime against the individual who filed the mental health petition.

That violent crime also has to be directly related to mental illness or drug addiction.

Artimez said those restrictions keep judges from using treatment compliance orders: if someone already has been deemed "dangerous," judges feel more comfortable having them committed to a mental health facility.

The state Supreme Court now wants legislators to loosen those restrictions, allowing judges to issue treatment orders if a psychiatrist or psychologist concludes that without treatment a person is likely to cause serious harm to themselves or others, or commit a violent crime.

Artimez said the increased use of treatment compliance officers would save the state money, since fewer people would be committed to state-run mental health facilities. It also would preserve individuals' civil liberties, since they would not be locked up against their will.

Members of the Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary got their first look at the court's proposed bill at an interim meeting Monday.

Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, asked what penalties there would be if someone did not follow a judge's treatment compliance order.

Artimez said individuals who did not comply with an order could be held in contempt of court and fined. Their biggest incentive to complying, however, is to avoid being locked up in a mental health facility.

"If they decompensate, they're going to be locked up," she said.

Delegate Tim Manchin asked how the state would measure the success of the pilot program. Artimez said if the number of involuntary commitments in the three affected counties drops, the pilot program is working.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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