The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and several lawyers are working on the legal framework for a Supreme Court database to keep track of people who are under court-ordered mental-health treatment, a tool for police and judges.
The database, which is under construction and to be managed by the Arizona Supreme Court, will allow police officers to know whether a person who is in the throes of a mental breakdown is undergoing treatment under the supervision of the court or deemed mentally incompetent by a court.
The proposed legislation also closes gaps in laws that prohibit certain people from possessing a firearm, such as those who are under indictment, under guardianship for mental incapacity or found to be mentally incompetent.
The state currently reports people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the database used for checking the backgrounds of gun buyers. But only about 10 percent of them are reported because of an inadequate digital record-keeping system.
The state doesn’t report people who have been determined to be incompetent. Arizona also doesn’t report people under felony indictment, mostly because prosecutors aren’t set up to enter information into the various criminal databases from which NICS captures data.
The idea behind the legislation and the database, known as the Mental-Health Registry, is to improve the state’s reporting to NICS.
The information in the mental health registry would be transmitted to the Arizona Department of Public Safety crime database and NICS.
“I really believe this is the start of a good solution,” said George Diaz, a spokesman for the Criminal Justice Commission.
The legislation is in its preliminary stage and has to be approved by the commission, which meets Nov. 14.
Eddie Sissons, a consultant with Mental Health America for Arizona, said any legislation is going to include a provision for deleting a person whose condition has improved from the mental-health data base.
Sissons said there has to be a balance reached between public safety and unnecessarily stigmatizing people with mental illness.
James McDougall, a retired judge who specializes in mental-health legal issues and sits on a mental-health panel of the State Bar of Arizona, is idrafting separate legislation that would spell out how the courts use the database. He said there has been plenty of discussion about Sissons’ concerns and establishing a way to get people out of the registry, either through a separate court proceeding or more automatically with a separate order that supersedes the order for treatment.
“Nobody wants this register to fill up with orders that don’t need to be enforced,” said McDougall, who sits on a State Bar panel concerned with mental-health law and legal practice.
McDougall said the legislation he is working on is also very preliminary and hasn’t been approved by the State Bar.
He said one of the advantages of the registry is that courts in different jurisdictions would know if a person is under court-ordered treatment. Right now, a judge in Pima County wouldn’t know if a person in front of him has a treatment order from Maricopa County.
The Pima County judge using the registry would be able to contact the Maricopa County court and figure out if the person needs to be returned to Maricopa County or if orders can be issued in Pima County to facilitate the treatment.
A second-piece of legislation McDougall is involved with has been approved by the State Bar.
The legislation would allow a mental-health guardian to obtain a court order allowing police to take a person into custody for treatment.
McDougall said state law allows a mental-health guardian to place his ward into the hospital without a court order for involuntary commitment, but often a ward whose condition is deteriorating won’t cooperate and refuses to go.
A similar piece of legislation, which did not require a court order for police to take the person into custody, failed in 2011.
McDougall said police weren’t comfortable with the idea of taking a person in crisis into custody without a crime being committed.
“They’re comfortable with court orders, but they’re not comfortable responding to some guy calling and saying, ‘I’m a mental-health guardian and I need to get this guy into treatment,’” McDougall said.
Note: The original version of the story incorrectly said the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and State Bar of Arizona are laying the groundwork for a database to keep track of people who are under court-ordered mental-health treatment, a tool for police and judges. The commission is working with several lawyers who belong to the state bar.
Draft Legislation pertaining to a Mental-Health Database and Mental-Health Issues Arizona Criminal Justice Commission:
1. Prohibits a person who is under a guardianship for mental incapacity or a person found to be mentally incompetent from owning a firearm.
2. Requires putting a person who is deemed mentally incapacitated or mentally incompetent into the mental-health registry managed by the Supreme Court. The information is then transmitted to the Department of Public Safety, which in turn transmits the information to a national crime database.
3. Prohibits people who are charged with a crime and pending trial from possessing a gun.
State Bar of Arizona:
1. Allows for police to be court ordered to transport someone to a mental hospital if a guardian believes the ward is in need of immediate in-patient mental-health care.
2. Gives courts access to the mental-health registry and gives them the ability to act on court orders from other jurisdictions.