Jared Lee Loughner and Arizona's Civil Commitment Laws

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Jan. 11 2011 4:02 PM

Jared Lee Loughner and Arizona's Civil Commitment Laws

Thank you, Meredith, for explaining Arizona's law for requesting a mental health evaluation for someone like Jared Loughner. I would not actually call the law "liberal," though, and I would also point out that ithere is a downside to mass self-policing of the sort you call for. Absolutely, in retrospect, I wish that someone, anyone had stopped Loughner. But the power to take someone to court for refusing treatment as a mentally ill person-the next step after requesting an evaluation, in some states-is a lot of power and it can be abused. I am not sure we want friends and neighbors using this on each other willy-nilly. Can you imagine a group of college students who don't like someone in their dorm asking the police to civilly commit her for, oh, say three days? Often it's hard to know whether a person who someone else says is scary and crazy actually is. Maybe the writing was indelibly on the wall about Jared Loughner, but that doesn't make that the rule.

To me, the harder question about Loughner is one Emily Y. and I have been discussing offline: What power should the people closest to Loughner-his parents-have, and what could they have done, given what they knew? Kate, I take your caution against blaming to heart. Actually, I would like to retire the world "blame" from the converation for at least a few weeks, if not forever, because it's so hard to really understand a story like this one, much less apportion blame. In that spirit, here's one thread of what we know so far. Last year, after Loughner repeatedly disrupted class and caused trouble in the library, and posted an accusatory vidoe aimed at his school on YouTube, Pima Community College called him in and told him he couldn't come back until he'd had that mental health eval and could show that he wasn't a danger to himself or others. (For more on that standard, here is Arizona's civil commitment statute .) According to the NYT , Lougher's parents met with the college, too.  And then-what? We don't know if he saw a psychiatrist or got any treatment. It seems crystal clear in hindsight that he should have. As Emily Y. says , and also David Brooks today , untreated mental illness is a risk factor for violence. So here is one proscription that to me is also crystal clear: Make it easier for mentally ill people to access psych services. This is actually something the health care reform bill addresses, with the staunch support of Gabrielle Giffords in Congress.

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What about Arizona's laws, which make it relatively easy to civilly commit a mentally ill person who refuses treatment? This is the harder part: It's not about giving someone the chance to get help. It's about forcing him to take it. You could argue that Loughner's case shows that laws like this don't work, because they failed to prevent his rampage, and that what we really need is more money to make psych services better and more enticing. Or you could argue that we need to make it even easier to put people like him away. This is is a very hard balance to strike. I would only caution that in moments like this, we often err on the side of the punitive.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

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