Fifteen years ago, J.R. — an intellectually disabled man who “functions as a seven-year old.” — was charged with sexual battery, but he was never tried because a court found him incompetent to stand trial. Instead, J.R. was involuntarily committed to a residential mental facility by a court order that contains no end date.
End of story. You see, under Florida law, the only entity that can order people like J.R. to be released is the court that originally ordered those people to be committed. And those courts have no obligation to conduct periodic reviews of whether institutionalized people.belong in a mental institution.
J.R. for example did not get a hearing since 2005.
I think the gravity of that needs to sink in. Obviously, there was a competency hearing of some kind, so J.R. received “due process” under the Constitution. Yet, he is in effect incarcerated indefinitely, even though he was never convicted of a crime. And that’s a huge constitutional problem.
Fortunately, in a decision handed down by the Eleventh Circuit federal appeals court yesterday, this is no longer permissible.
“A state must release a person who is involuntarily committed if the grounds for his commitment cease to exist,” Judge Beverly Martin explained in her opinion on behalf of a two-judge panel. That constitutional requirement, however, “is toothless if a state does not periodically review whether the grounds for commitment are met.”
Specifically, Judge Martin notes, J.R. was committed under a law that permits the institutionalization of people who lack “‘basic survival and self-care skills to such a degree that close supervision and habilitation in a residential setting is necessary and, if not provided, would result in a real and present threat of substantial harm to the person’s well-being’ or would leave the person ‘likely to physically injure others if allowed to remain at liberty.’” J.R. may very well have presented a danger to others at the time of his confinement, but he has now lived more than a decade in a facility where he could learn coping and socialization skills that may eliminate that danger. He’s also been convicted of no crime.
At the very least, Martin’s opinion establishes, he should not remain confined forever because no one has bothered to look into whether his commitment can still be justified.
It’s some small progress in the law recognizing the rights of the mentally ill.