CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Friday, October 10, 2008

Task force recommends changes to state's involuntary commitment laws

A mental health system facing a critical shortage of hospital beds, riddled with breakdowns in communication and hamstrung by the state's commitment laws helped create the conditions that led to the killing of Sierra Club worker Shannon Harps outside her Capitol Hill apartment last New Year's Eve, a task force reviewing how the system operated in that case has found.

James Williams, a repeat violent offender with severe schizophrenia, has been charged with first-degree murder in Harps' death. Williams, who was under community supervision at the time of the murder, wasn't complying with court-ordered treatment and had been off the medications that helped control his violent hallucinations when he allegedly stabbed Harps to death.

Community corrections officers supervising Williams used every tool the system provided to try to keep Williams in treatment and out of trouble, said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who convened the task force to examine the case.

"The bottom line -- they ran out of tools, Mr. Williams was let out and 10 days later he was charged in Harps' death," Satterberg said.

The task force included more than two dozen psychiatrists, corrections officers, police officers, mental health counselors, county- and state-level executives, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors and legislators. Members, who met for the final time Tuesday, made 57 recommendations to Satterberg, who is expected to release the report next month.

One of the biggest reforms would be to change the state's involuntary commitment laws to mandate treatment for those with a significant history of violence, the Seattle P-I has learned.

Other major changes include:

  • Providing more tools for enforcing outpatient treatment in the community.
  • Reducing privacy barriers so police can know the mental health histories of people they deal with in "real time."
  • Allowing those who make involuntary treatment decisions more leeway to consider past history of violence. [Mark Godsey]
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