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New Legislation Passes to Protect the Rights of People With Mental Illness

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

(Washington, DC) The District of Columbia Council today passed the Mental Health Civil Commitment Act of 2002, which brings the District's civil commitment procedures in line with those of more than 40 states. The legislation provides for review on a regular basis of a person's involuntary commitment. Once Mayor Williams signs the legislation, it will go before Congress for a 30-day review before its final enactment. Passage of this legislation fulfills yet another requirement of the 2001 Court-ordered Plan that the DC Department of Mental Health is implementing as it creates the city's new public mental health system.

This new legislation updates the civil commitment procedures written by the late North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin in 1964. The Ervin Act, as it is commonly known, detailed the process for involuntary commitment. Since then, the country has expanded the civil rights of people with mental illness, especially to ensure they receive treatment in the least restrictive, most integrated setting. The Ervin Act reflected the thinking of its time and did not allow regular court review of a person's involuntary commitment. As a result, people spent decades at St. Elizabeths Hospital or under other restricted living conditions with little chance of regaining their liberty, despite their ability to live safely in the community.

"We are pleased that the Council has taken this action," said DMH Director Martha B. Knisley. "There have been many advances over the years in thinking about people with mental illness and their treatment. The law lagged behind contemporary thought, which embraces recovery from mental illness as an outcome of treatment; and today, treatment is based on the person's full participation in decisions about his or her care."

Currently, about 500 people are involuntarily committed and they will have court review and a new commitment decision made under this new law. Annually, about 1,400 people are involuntarily hospitalized in the District, now they will have the right to be treated in a less restrictive setting than a hospital.