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Lots of mental commitments, but what’s the process?

This is the second article in a series about mental health in Escambia County. 

The last article shined a light on this county’s high mental health commitments. Last year, Escambia County had 133 people committed, meaning one person is committed for every 285 people. Jefferson County, a county 17 times the size of Escambia, had 240 people committed last year. That means one person is committed for every 2,745 people.

To help understand mental health commitments, The Brewton Standard is taking a look into the process of involuntary mental commitments.

In Alabama, involuntary mental commitments occur after a witness makes a petition with an attorney that outlines the overt acts the witness is accusing another person of doing. The attorney then decides if the evidence or testimony provided by the witness is legally considered overt and that the accused is in fact a danger to themselves or others. Overt is the legal term for behaving out of the norm.

Once the attorney decides based on his or her legal understanding of overt to send the petition to the probate judge, the chief clerk will issue an order to have the person picked up by the sheriff’s department.

Escambia County Probate Judge Doug Agerton said he does not play any role in determining if the evidence provided by the witness is overt or not.

Alabama is one of only four states that allow a probate judge to be a non-lawyer. Both Jefferson and Mobile counties require their probate judges to be attorneys, but Escambia County doesn’t have that requirement.

The sheriff’s department then receives the civil commitment from the courthouse. When the police come to pick up the patient from the address listed on the commitment, Escambia County Sheriff Heath Jackson said that the police officers explain the commitment to the patient and then the police bring them to an available mental facility in handcuffs to be evaluated by psychologists.

“Majority of these mental patients need to be put into handcuffs,” Agerton said. “They can be difficult to handle sometimes because they are having a mental episode.”

Jackson confirmed that the patients aren’t read any Miranda rights or given the opportunity to contact a lawyer because a civil commitment is not a criminal matter.

If Southwest Mental and Crenshaw County Hospital don’t have any beds available for the involuntarily committed mental patient, then Jackson said they postpone the civil commitment to when a mental facility is available.

Jackson said that to his knowledge and since he has been sheriff, mentally ill patients who didn’t commit a crime have not been housed in the county detention center.

Agerton said the state law requires that involuntarily committed mental patients must stay in a mental facility for a minimum of seven days. Once their psychological evaluation has been completed and the psychologists said the patient is in good health, the patient by state law has to have a court hearing with the probate judge.

Agerton said that during the hearing the witness will have an attorney and the patient will have a  guardian ad litem attorney to ensure that the patient is not mistreated. The witness gets to speak first about their reasoning for filing the petition and then the patient gets to respond.

Agerton said the guardian ad litem attorney gets to cross examine the witness at the hearing. However, the guardian ad litem attorney doesn’t get to question the psychologist, and the psychologist isn’t required to attend the hearing.

“The hearing’s purpose is to show the patient why we kept them detained and why someone put a petition in,” Agerton said. “We’re not determining in the hearing if they should have been evaluated. If they get sent to the hospital obviously that means that’s what needed to be done.”

Agerton said there have been a few times where during a hearing he has decided to send a patient who behaved in a distraught or distracting manner back despite the psychologists saying the patient is in good health. Agerton said sometimes the patients don’t remember how they behaved when they were mentally unstable and behave angrily.

Agerton said that after the hearing the patients are still under a 150-day order, so if they have another episode, the patient is sent back to a mental facility and not petition is needed.