One has to wonder if there’s a White House staffer whose job is simply to follow President Trump around and whisper, “sir, that’s not how it works” in the president’s ear the ten or so times each day as the president makes predictably inane suggestions. You could almost hear the face palms Monday when our child president advocated for a world in which people were whisked off the streets and locked up for simply being too crazy. Yes, I’m serious. This is what he said to a room full of governors:
“We have to confront the issue and we have to discuss mental health and we have to do something about it. You know, in the old days we had mental institutions. We had a lot of them. And you could nab somebody like this, because they … knew something was off. You had to know that. People were calling all over the place.”
Don’t wonder too long whether that quote was taken out of context, because there’s another one clarifying exactly what Trump meant with respect to individuals. Speaking hypothetically about should have been done with the Parkland shooter, Trump said:
“He’s off the streets. You can’t arrest him, I guess, because he hasn’t done anything, but you know he’s like a boiler ready to explode, right?” the president said. “You can’t put him in jail, I guess, because he hasn’t done anything. But in the old days, you would put him into a mental institution.”
I’m not precisely sure which “old days” to which Trump is referring, but he must be reaching pretty far back, because we’ve had due process here for quite a while now. The suggestion that someone who appears volatile could be “nabbed” and then thrown directly into a mental institution for safekeeping is some Dickens-era hogwash.
Let’s get something straight: most people with mental illness do not commit violent crimes. Yes, it’s true that many people who commit violent crimes are mentally ill, but draw the Venn diagram, people. Most people who commit mass shootings also have a history of committing domestic violence. Oh, and just about all mass shooters are men. I don’t hear anyone out there advocating that all men (or even all those with histories of violence against women) should be intercepted on the street and locked up without thinking twice.I know Trump often struggles with subtle concepts like “some, but not all,” but give me a break. And let’s check what the experts say. Today, Law & Crime spoke with attorney Heather Cucolo, professor of mental disability law at New York Law School, and partner at Mental Disability Law and Policy Associates. Professor Cuculo explained some striking statistics:
“There is an overblown and unsupported belief that persons who are mentally ill are also dangerous and the highly publicized acts of violence by people with mental illness further askew public perception. A 2006 national survey found, for example, that 60% of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else, while 32% thought that people with major depression were likely to do so. Current research suggests that most individuals with psychiatric disorders are not violent. Research published by the American Psychological Association studied crimes committed by people with serious mental disorders and found that only 7.5 percent were directly related to symptoms of mental illness.”
In real life, we already have “civil commitment” statutes. These are laws that would allow for a person with a serious mental illness to be involuntarily committed if that person is judicially determined to pose a risk of danger to his or her self or others.
Because it’s not 1700, and because we value personal liberty and due process, we have actual, statutory standards for what must be proven before a person can be involuntarily committed. The law are not perfect and these standards vary state by state, but generally converge on the concept of requiring proof that the person in question is dangerous. Jurisdictions are split about whether such a finding requires the proof that the person has already performed an overtly dangerous act, or simply demonstrates a propensity to do so. Since our president is preoccupied with criticizing how professionals in Florida acted, let’s take a quick look at what’s going on legally down there.
Since 1971, Florida has had the “Baker Act” which for allows for an emergency involuntary examination and commitment for a person who has a mental illness. Under the Baker Act, a judge, law enforcement official, physician, or mental health professional can initiate the process, and upon a showing of appropriate “clear and convincing evidence,” a person can be ordered by the court to undergo outpatient or inpatient treatment. The statute does what we’d expect it to do to: balance the rights of the individual in question against the interest of protecting society from someone potentially dangerous. The law requires evidence that the subject has a mental illness, and evidence that the illness is causing that person to be dangerous or harmful to themselves or others. The “clear and convincing” standard of proof required does not rise to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that is required for a criminal conviction, but is still higher than what would be needed for a standard civil lawsuit.
Professor Cuculo points out that calls to change the legal way standards for adjudicating civil commitment is anything but careful:
“Reactionary laws and legislation — such as the one President Trump is suggesting — ignore statistical data and expert consensus regarding the mentally ill and propensity for violence. Mentally ill individuals are an easy population to target and use as scapegoats to distract from the necessary discussion that our president refuses to significantly engage in – gun control.”
Donald Trump may have seen Minority Report one too many times, and honestly wish we could revamp our legal system to prophylactically intercept crime without wreaking havoc on basic standards of due process. But instead of lamenting the good ol’ days, he might want to try and look at the systems that already exist. The many dedicated mental health professionals working across our country need resources. The mentally ill need good healthcare and easy access to treatment. Law enforcement needs better training that will help them recognize and work with the mentally ill. Trump’s megalomaniacal I-always-know-better attitude smacks of just the kind of delusion of grandeur often indicative of mental illness. Perhaps he should be more grateful that involuntary commitment isn’t quite as easy as he’d like it to be.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated from its original version to include expert quotes.
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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.