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July 22, 2019

The ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Resources Marvin Figueroa, chair of the statewide work group charged with developing policy reforms to reduce the number of people admitted involuntarily to the state’s psychiatric hospitals, to lay out some basic principles the work group should consider in order to balance the interests of public safety and the constitutional rights of individuals.

"The ACLU of Virginia believes a properly administered and adequately funded system of mental health services is a requirement of civilized society," stated the letter. "Such a system must respect due process and the privacy rights of people with mental illness. Any reform legislation must ensure that we never treat someone as a criminal simply because the Commonwealth did not provide adequate funding for mental health facilities and for adequate transportation services to those locations."

The letter explained the ACLU of Virginia's opposition to involuntary civil commitment and other types of temporary custody. "Involuntary civil commitment and other forms of custody should only be utilized as a last resort for a person who is in need of mental health services," stated the letter. "Those persons must also refuse to voluntarily and without coercion commit themselves to a mental health facility after an appropriate mental health evaluation concludes he or she is in need of services."

Other basic principles mentioned in the letter include:

  • Mental disability [or psychiatric disability] cannot by itself be a justifiable reason for depriving a person of liberty against his or her objection unless it has been judicially determined that an individual is a danger to himself or others, and no other less restrictive, alternative environment is suitable.
  • Court-ordered temporary detention periods should be as brief as possible, but last no longer than seventy-two hours without a mandatory hearing to avoid violating the due process rights of the individual in custody. Court ordered emergency custody periods should also be as brief as possible.
  • Individuals in custody should be held in the least restrictive environment to be evaluated by qualified medical professionals and in no circumstances, be held in jails or prisons.
  • Individuals held in custody have the right to an attorney at every step of the judicial process.
  • Due process requires that individuals in custody have a full opportunity to prepare for judicial proceedings and to make an informed defense.
In addition, the ACLU of Virginia urged the work group to consider supporting a change to § 18.2-57 of the Code of Virginia regarding felony assault on a police officer. "This charge is all too often applied to people experiencing mental health crises who may commit an act as minor as spitting on an officer while being taken into emergency custody," stated the letter. "It is wrong to make felons out of individuals in crisis who act out without endangering anyone’s life or causing any physical harm. These charges result in needless incarceration and felonization of individuals in need of help, with all of the resulting collateral consequences of a felony conviction including loss of their voting rights and limitations on employment. At a minimum, the law should be changed so that no criminal charges can be filed in any such case involving a person being taken into involuntary custody and transported by law enforcement that have not been reviewed by a Commonwealth’s Attorney."
 
You can read the full letter in the attachment below.
 
 

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