Health professionals treating mentally ill patients often attempt to commit patients to psychiatric hospitals. When the patient will not agree, the doctor may consider involuntary commitment. This is generally considered at the insistence of the family. In recent decades, the United States Supreme Court has limited the circumstances where a person can be committed to a mental hospital against their will. Despite these rulings, the civil rights remain under attack. The public bodies often perceive those who suffer from a mental instability as a danger to society and want them separate from the community (Wahl, 1995, p. 1). Throughout this paper, I will detail the current system that governs involuntary commitment. I will also discuss the history and significance of that policy, and the key issues surrounding that policy. I will finally discuss the steps that are required to protect the civil rights of the mentally ill.
The Mentally Ill and their Civil Rights
The system that governs involuntary commitment has its origin in the judiciary system. The U.S. Supreme Court began reshaping the mental health laws during the 1960s, during the civil rights revolution, which conferred equal rights under the law to the American people. Though not a regular minority, the mentally unstable became viewed as a disadvantaged group that had suffered at the hands of the majority. That attitude is reflected in the Court's decisions and in their approach to involuntary commitment. Also reflected in the current policy is society's error over numerous shocking stories about people abandoned in mental institutions for decades.
The Court first extended the civil rights guarantees for mental health patients facing commitment in the case of Specht v. Patterson, in 1967. The Court ruled that involuntary commitment to a mental institution "is a deprivation of liberty which the State cannot accomplish without due process." (The Courts have since reaffirmed that model on numerous occasions.) During that time, however, the Court did not clearly define the term "due process" in the context of mandatory commitment.
That task was assigned to state legislatures, who imposed the "clear and convincing evidence" standard. In summary, to commit a person against his will, the state had to support with clear evidence that he was a danger to himself and others. Very few states require a strictly regulated standard of proof found in criminal courts," beyond a reasonable doubt,". Texas required only a presentation by preponderance of the evidence, which was the burden found in civil court. These burdens of proof can be mapped out on a sliding scale. Preponderance is located at the low end (more likely than not / 51 percent), and reasonable doubt is at the high end (99 percent sure or greater). Most legal experts will stand that clear and convincing evidence between two burdens of proof, are around 75 percent certainty.
Second, errors made in a civil commitment proceeding are more easily rectified. If an individual is committed to a psychiatric hospital unnecessarily, authorities will soon realize because that person will be under constant observation (theoretically), from both health-care professionals and family and friends. If the doctors do not show that fact to the judiciary's attention, no doubt the family will. On the other hand, once a criminal trial ends, the matter is usually closed, leaving little chance of remedying an unjust verdict. Courts will not revisit the issue absent a compelling reason, and though the convict is under constant supervision, prison guards are there to establish order and not to investigate whether the prisoner's ruling was just.
Third, the inquiries are so precise that they undertake different standards of proof. The criminal trial is a one-time hearing where the court attempts to ascertain whether the defendant committed the act that is alleged. The facts determine the outcome. In a civil...
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