Our View of the Legislature: Mental Health

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With less than a week to go, the legislature has completed all of the work to be done in committee, except for committees addressing the budget.  At this stage, there are bills that came out of one house that were amended in the other house.  If the first house accepts the changes, then the bill is done.  But if the first house does not accept the changes, the bill goes into a “committee of conference” to resolve the differences.  Conference committees do not meet in public.

Of the many bills we are watching relating to mental illness that the General Assembly is working on, most are near completion and but at least one issue is headed to conference:

The issue that is still not resolved, and will go to conference, relates to evidence of mental illness and other disabilities in criminal proceedings.  SB 1315 (McClellan) and HB 2047 (Bourne) deal with the important question of whether evidence of an individual’s disability can be offered in criminal cases, where the disability impacts the person’s ability to form a specific intent to commit a crime.   Currently, such evidence cannot be admitted in a criminal proceeding.

As originally offered, SB 1315 and HB 2047 would have allowed evidence that a person’s mental illness or developmental disability was such that they were not able to form a specific intent to commit a crime.  Both bills were amended when they were in the House, to allow only evidence of developmental or intellectual disability or autism, but not evidence of mental illness.  The Senate has insisted on including mental illness.

Adding to the controversy over these two bills was a very unusual political tactic employed this past weekend.  When Senate Bill 1315 was heard by the House Courts Criminal Law subcommittee, it failed to report out of subcommittee on a tie vote.  Normally, that would mean that the bill was dead, but members of the full Courts committee revived the bill the next day, late on a Saturday afternoon, when it had not been on the Committee’s agenda and the public had no notice it would be heard.  This was a maneuver that, according to one committee member, had not been seen in at least twenty years.  Nonetheless, the Courts committee approved the bill, after removing references to mental illness.  As it now stands, there is a version of the bill that includes mental illness and a version that does not.  We expect that this will now go to a committee of conference for resolution.  If the committee reaches a resolution, that resolution must be approved by both the Senate and the House.

Bills that are nearing completion:

SB 1273 (Deeds) – this bill creates a permanent legislative body to replace the SJ 47 committee or “Deeds Commission.” SJ 47 was a resolution passed in 2014 that created a “Joint Committee to Study Mental Health Services in the Twenty-First Century.”  Under SB 1273, the Behavioral Health Commission replace the SJ 47 Commission, and would consist of five senators and seven delegates, possibly with full-time or part-time professional staff.  Mental Health consumers requested that the bill specifically include citizen members with lived experience on the Commission, but the Rules Committee declined to make that change.  The bill will was approved by the Senate and by the House Committee on Rules.  It will go to the full House for a final vote later this week.   The Commission must be included in the final budget, as it carries a fiscal impact.

SB 1304 (McPike) changes the requirements regarding discharge planning for individuals in state mental health facilities.  As originally filed, it would have allowed someone to be discharged without a fully completed discharge plan, so long as essential services are identified.  Under the original bill, the rest of the discharge plan would be completed within 30 days after discharge.   The bill was amended in Senate Education and Health to require planning before discharge and to convene a workgroup to propose further solutions to problems of discharge planning.  dLCV has requested to be included in that workgroup.  The bill was then approved by both the Senate and the House.

Delegate Hope’s annual bill to amend state law concerning Mandatory Outpatient Treatment nears completion.  HB 2166 makes some positive changes to the law, including a requirement to recognize an individual’s wellness recovery plan or advanced directive.  However, the bill extends the length of the Mandatory order from 90 days to 180 days, and removes the requirement that the individual agree to the treatment.   The bill was approved by the House, then went to the Senate Committee on Education and Health.  It was added to the committee’s agenda at the very last minute and the committee chair did not entertain any public comment on the bill.  In response to community outrage, Delegate Hope did offer amendments when the bill went to the Senate Committee on Finance.  His amendment directs the court to consider the impact on an individual’s employment or education before implementing a full 180 day order.  The bill was approved by the full Senate and returned to the House, which accepted the amendments.

HB 2236 (Bell) makes technical changes to Virginia code regarding Behavioral Health Court dockets.  The bill was approved by both the House and the Senate.

HB 1874 (Coyner) requires correctional facilities to complete necessary mental health assessments within 72 hours of the initial intake screening. The bill was approved by the House and is on the Senate calendar for final vote later today.

HB 1951 (Simons) removes the common-law crime of suicide.  The bill was approved by the House of Delegates but was defeated in Senate Judiciary.

The disAbility Law Center of Virginia is available to educate policymakers about the implications of the decisions before them.  Please continue to check back here for updates as the session proceeds, and let us know of any legislative proposals or budget issues that you think we should be following.  Contact us at info@dlcv.org or by calling 1-800-552-3962 or 804-225-2042.

It is the mission of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia to advance independence, choice and self-determination; protect legal, human and civil rights; and eliminate abuse, neglect and discrimination of people with disabilities through zealous and uncompromising legal advocacy and representation.