Sunday, October 12, 2008

Washington State Task Force Recommends Changes to Laws

An article by Carol Smith in the Seattle Post-Intelligence discusses a task force's recommendation to the state's involuntary commitment laws after a man with a psychotic illness murdered Sierra Club worker Shannon Harps last year.

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.
Their recommendations noted in the story:
  1. Change the state's involuntary commitment laws to mandate treatment for those with a significant history of violence.
  2. Provide more tools for enforcing outpatient treatment in the community.
  3. Reduce privacy barriers so police can know the mental health histories of people they deal with in "real time."
  4. Allow those who make involuntary treatment decisions more leeway to consider past history of violence.
This issue of compulsory treatment is gaining more and more supporters, usually after this or a Virginia Tech-like story.  It is something our society continues to struggle with -- the balance between civil liberties and the right to control one's own body on one side, and public safety and the responsibility that society has to "help" vulnerable people.

I see the pros and cons on either side.  Personally, I think that when one's illness interferes with others, particularly other's safety (think epilepsy and driving, TB and isolation, STD and contact reporting), that is when society has a responsibility to intervene.


PS: My apologies to the readers for my extended absence.  If you knew what was going on in my life, you'd understand (all is well, though).  A big Thank You to Dinah for keeping the flame alive!!