A bill that would allow the state to keep people in psychiatric facilities against their will for up to two years passed the Senate on Monday.
The bill gives prosecutors the ability to request a two-year commitment to keep the public safe if the defendant has a history of violence and is a danger to themselves or others.
It also requires the state law department to ask for an involuntary commitment if someone has criminal charges dismissed against them because of incompetency.
Sponsor Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, said the bill is necessary to protect the public. He pointed to an incident last year at the Anchorage library where a woman was stabbed by someone recently found incompetent to stand trial. After charges were dismissed against him, he was released back to the community.
“Two months earlier he had attacked two other women and then was released into the community after they dismissed his case because he was not competent to stand trial,” said Claman on the Senate floor. “The man who stabbed Angela should not have been released when they dismissed his criminal case.”
Claman said his bill would prevent a similar situation by requiring the Department of Law to seek a civil commitment for someone after criminal charges are dropped.
Currently, prosecutors can ask juries to hold people who are found unfit for trial because of mental incompetencies for up to 30 days. That commitment can be renewed up to six times for up to 180 days total. During that time the person is supposed to be treated at a psychiatric facility.
Some civil rights groups, including the ACLU of Alaska, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights and the Disability Law Center of Alaska, opposed the bill even after the maximum length of involuntary commitment was dropped from five years to two.
ACLU advocacy director Michael Garvey said it’s unclear whether the bill would have prevented last year’s library stabbing, and it’s unnecessary infringement on civil liberties.
“The bill is thinking about it in this way of ‘how long do we need to keep someone off the streets’ but our constitution mandates that we need to think of it as what’s the minimum amount we need to keep a person,” said Garvey.
The bill allows people who are involuntarily committed for two years to petition for early release if they can give “clear and convincing” evidence to a judge that they no longer risk harming themselves or others.
Garvey also pointed to the state’s overburdened psychiatric care system, the state ombudsman investigated for improper patient care and hostile workplace in 2019 and again in 2022. In a 2019 settlement, the state was also found to be housing people in jails and hospitals while they awaited evaluations at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Garvey said even if people are able to get evaluated within 10 days as required by the bill, there could be unintended consequences for other people needing psychiatric help.
“That will push people outside API who could be using that space for restoration for a brief hold. And where are they going to go instead? They’ll be sent to a jail, in a hospital, or released out into the community where they won’t be able to get any treatment,” he said.
The bill passed the Senate 14-6 with three Democrats and three Republicans voting against it. The House is considering a similar bill. If it passes, the two will likely be reconciled in a conference committee.