Senate Committee Hears Testimony on Involuntary Commitment Bill

Senate Committee Hears Testimony on Involuntary Commitment Bill

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A Senate committee began hearing testimony Wednesday morning on a bill that would make it easier for families or guardians to commit a mentally ill person for treatment.

The bill would allow the court to force people into treatment if they pose "a substantial danger" to themselves or others. Involuntary commitment is currently based on the more strict "immediate danger" standard.

This legislation would allow a judge to consider testimony from a person's friends and family to determine the risk he or she poses, said Vicki Cottrell executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Utah.

Now, if a person can appear mentally healthy during a brief court appearance, the person will not be forced into treatment, she said.

The proposed legislation has been named in honor of Susan Gall, allegedly killed by her son who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and delusions. Family members say that before Gall's death, her 25-year-old son had stopped taking his medications. Leonard Gall is awaiting trial while his mental competency is examined.

A similar bill failed during the 2000 legislative session. However, Gall's death in Dec. 2001 revived the study of Utah's involuntary commitment statute. The bill is the result of a legislative task force created last year to draft the proposed law.

Sen. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, called this bill one of the most important to be considered during the legislative session.

However, before the committee votes on whether to forward the bill to the full Senate for consideration, the measure may be altered to address the concerns of the attorney general's office and the Utah Peace Officers Association.

They say the definition of those who could be involuntarily committed has been drawn too narrowly. Ken Wallentine, president elect of the officers association, said under the bill a cop killer could have been set free.

Before Lee Roy Wood pleaded guilty to murdering Roosevelt Police Chief Cecil Gurr, he had claimed he was mentally ill due to a brain injury, Wallentine said. Had the court ruled that he was incompetent to stand trial under this proposed law, Wood could not have been hospitalized because the bill's exemptions to involuntary commitment includes brain injuries.

The bill was also altered Wednesday to erase a provision that said people could be committed if their illness makes them "incapable of providing the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, and shelter, to a degree that physically harms their health or safety."

Sen. James Evans, D-Salt Lake City, said he was concerned that the language could be misused to roundup and remove the homeless.

About 700 people are committed against their will yearly in Utah, and the bill, if enacted, is expected to increase the number by about 100.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to continue public testimony and vote on the bill Friday morning.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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