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Tennessee lawmakers propose more power to involuntarily commit mentally ill people


Tennessee lawmakers are proposing expanding the state's power to involuntarily commit people with severe mental illnesses. The push comes after the fatal shooting in Nashville of a college student last year. The suspect is a person police say had a mental health disorder. And other states are passing similar laws. Marianna Bacallao from member station WPLN reports advocates worry the effort would undermine the civil rights of the most vulnerable.

MARIANNA BACALLAO, BYLINE: Deborah Woodard's son has autism and schizophrenia. He's been in and out of jail and the hospital for years.

DEBORAH WOODARD: When he gets put in the jail, I have to always bring my conservatorship papers, even though they don't listen to that.

BACALLAO: She says police officers and jail staff don't often know about his condition when booking him.

WOODARD: He used to shut down and won't communicate with them. And they tased him, and the police officer charged at him. I saw it all on the tape. I said, I don't believe this.

BACALLAO: Woodard's son and people with similar conditions could be held in state custody for longer under a proposal in the Tennessee State House. The measure would automatically commit people after they're judged incompetent to stand trial. That comes after the fatal shooting of a Nashville college freshman last year. A judge ruled the alleged shooter was incompetent to stand trial for a separate gun-related charge a few months prior. Zoe Jamail with Disability Rights Tennessee worries expanding the reach of these laws could lead to the mass institutionalization of a certain group.

WOODARD: We don't believe that someone, just based on a disability, should be institutionalized. That's how we used to treat people with disabilities, and we've come a really long way moving away from that.

BACALLAO: States have been grappling with when and for how long to commit people with certain severe conditions. Jeffrey Swanson is a professor of psychiatry at Duke University. He says some states are pushing people with mental illnesses into state care because there isn't enough funding for programs that keep them in their communities.

JEFFREY SWANSON: They're variations on those laws. They're quite controversial. But they tended to be enacted, you know, after some kind of a violent event involving a person with mental illness. So you have...

BACALLAO: Kendra's Law in New York, Laura's Law in California and Kevin's Law in Michigan.

SWANSON: And those tend to be passed because, you know, the general public don't care so much about individuals with mental illness who need care, but they do care about public safety.

BACALLAO: Advocates say institutionalizing more people means the state will need to pay for more support staff and bed space in state hospitals and jails, where many people with mental illnesses end up. Kevin Henderson is the deputy chief of Rutherford County Jail. He says his facility could use more funding.

KEVIN HENDERSON: Well, I would hope to have a clinician, a psychologist.

BACALLAO: He says a staff of nurses and a psych unit would also help. More than half of the people in Rutherford County jail have been diagnosed with some sort of mental illness, according to Henderson. He says his staff isn't equipped to handle their needs.

HENDERSON: But the issue is once they are released, we have nobody to hand them off to, and they go right back out into that same environment that brought them here in the first place. So it's just a revolving door for them.

BACALLAO: As for a long-term solution?

HENDERSON: I mean, being locked up in a jail is not the place for them.

BACALLAO: Woodard agrees. Her son has gone back-and-forth between the jail and the hospital since he aged out of a group home for teenagers.

WOODARD: They just think, oh, he's just crazy and that's it. You know, they don't understand the different levels of the mental illness. And you need support. People need support. They need people to lean on and talk about their problems.

BACALLAO: Her son is currently in a state hospital, and she doesn't know where he'll go from here. They'll just have to wait and see what the courts decide and what the legislature does. For NPR News in Nashville, I'm Marianna Bacallao. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Marianna Bacallao