A few weeks ago, West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Menis Ketchum told legislators changes should be made in the state's "mental hygiene" system. That could save taxpayers $3 million a year, Ketchum explained.
It also could avoid an injustice affecting thousands of West Virginia residents.
Last year, the mental hygiene system was used to commit 3,299 West Virginians involuntarily to mental insitutions, Steven Canterbury, court administrator for the Supreme Court, testified to legislators this week. Of that number, just 361 were held beyond the 30-day observation period required by law.
That means 2,938 of those commited were examined by doctors, who decided they did not pose a threat to themselves or others.
Nevertheless, the names of all of them were entered on the State Mental Health Registry and the National Instant Criminal Background Check system, Canterbury noted.
Those listed on the federal background check system are banned from owning firearms. Background checks, often available for a fee on the Internet, can show their names - possibly keeping them from finding jobs.
Remember, 2,938 of these people were examined and judged not to be threats. Yet they are listed on databases of criminals and the mentally ill.
Legislators heard a variety of concerns about the mental hygiene system.
Canterbury worried aloud to lawmakers that some people who aren't truly mentally ill are commited to hospitals. Drug abusers who may behave rationally when not under the influence are an example, he said.
Clearly, Ketchum is right: West Virginia's mental hygiene system needs to be revamped. It is probably too late in the Legislature's session for lawmakers to do anything but order a study - but that, in cooperation with the state Supreme Court, should be done. The issue is of concern enough for legislators to hold interim hearings on it, with the goal of enacting improvements as soon as possible.