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Lawmakers weigh mental illness petitions ahead of special session

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 6/6/2024

Jun. 6—With a special session coming up, some state lawmakers on Wednesday delved into the mechanics of a law that lets a court order a person experiencing serious mental health issues to participate in outpatient treatment services.

During the July special session, which will be focused on public safety, lawmakers are expected to debate whether to expand the list of people who can file a petition to initiate involuntary treatment. As written, the law delineates who can petition for a person to be compelled to participate in assisted outpatient treatment, or AOT.

People who can file a petition include an adult who lives with a person; a sibling, child, parent or spouse; someone who treats the person for a mental disorder; the director of a hospital where the person is hospitalized; and the director of a charitable home where the person in question lives. Under a draft bill proposed by the Governor's Office, the list of people with standing to file an AOT petition would grow to include first responders, police, firefighters and homeless outreach workers, as well as a court-appointed public guardian or public conservator, among others.

Members of the Legislature's interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee received a copy of the governor's draft bill and are scheduled for a Thursday briefing from staffers in the Governor's Office on "possible special session legislation."

Rep. Christine Chandler, a Los Alamos Democrat who chairs the committee, said the AOT law was enacted around 2016.

"It gives local governments, primarily, the authority to create programs, working with the courts, that would make certain treatment plans mandatory," she said, adding only one of the state's 33 counties — Doña Ana — has such a program in New Mexico.

Albuquerque had one but no longer does.

"It seems, based on what we heard, to be an effective program," Chandler said, after hearing a presentation to the committee from Jamie Michael, Doña Ana County's Health and Human Services director.

The presentation showed, among other things, a reduction in homelessness, arrests and hospitalizations.

"The question some of the legislators are raising, and I share, is why not find a way to encourage other communities to adopt an approach like that and see what outcomes we have ... and see whether or not that will address the concerns that many of us have, which is we have people with serious mental health issues, we all care about them, we want to improve their condition and keep them out of the criminal justice system and other contacts with the law," Chandler said.

Asked during the meeting how the law could be improved, Michael said the list of petitioners is "fairly limited."

"If we do want to look at a new pathway into AOT that connects to the criminal side or to the competency process, then [add] some additional petitioners," she said. "Still very cautious, but it might be nice if the court or the defense attorney or other folks can be petitioners."

The draft AOT bill is among several Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is proposing for the special session, which will be focused on public safety.

Some lawmakers have expressed skepticism about the dayslong special session and raised concerns it won't afford the Legislature enough time to tackle complicated legislation. Other proposals include a civil and criminal competency bill described as a "complete retooling of our system," as well as a roadway safety bill and a proposal to enhance the penalty for felons in possession of firearms.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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