Waiting for Tragedy : Challenges with civil commitment

Waiting for Tragedy : Challenges with civil commitment (KTVL/Mail Tribune)

MEDFORD, Ore. -- More than a year ago, 20 year old Avi Feldman went to a house party in Ashland, with a friend. That same night, Avi was murdered. His friend, 22 year old Pedro Sabalsa-Mendez stabbed him outside. Sabalsa-Mendez was sentenced earlier this year to murder except for insanity. He will be in the custody of the Psychiatric Security Review Board for the rest of his life. His mother tried to get him civilly committed, but Sabalsa-Mendez couldn't meet the state's high standards, even though he threatened to kill himself and others.

The Jackson County District Attorney's office says the standards are written very generally and threats to commit suicide or kill someone else isn't always enough to get them committed. Senior Deputy District Attorney Laura Cromwell says the state is required to prove a person's mental disorder is causing behavior that will likely cause serious physical injury to themselves or others in the near future.

The state also has to prove the person has an inability to care for their personal needs, like getting food or medical care.

Many times, verbal threats alone aren't enough. Cromwell says they have to prove someone is dangerous because of their mental health disorder, not just their criminal behavior.

"There is a fear obviously, ethically I have to, both myself and the Jackson County Mental Health who investigate these cases, have to remain within the parameter of the law so there's always this balancing test. We cannot violate someone's civil rights by going forward with a case or even holding someone for a period of time that doesn't meet the criteria written out in case law. We would be violating someone's civil rights if we did so and the fear is, if we let this person go, which we have to do ethically, are they going to hurt somebody?" Cromwell explains about the frustrations with the law.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, fewer than 8% of commitment investigations result in committment.

"Even if we commit somebody, there is a drastic lack of mental health beds in the state. What do we do with these folks anyway?" Cromwell says about the broken system.

Learn more about the struggles and difficulties in the Mail Tribune's special series.

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