(AL.com) — A system that's supposed to keep guns out of the hands of people with dangerous mental illness misses thousands of people reported to local authorities for disturbing behavior in Alabama, despite efforts in recent years to tighten requirements.
According to records from the Alabama Department of Finance, the state paid for 6,713 commitment hearings in 2016 to determine whether people were dangerous to themselves or others due to serious mental illness. The department does not track how many of those hearings led to involuntary commitment in psychiatric hospitals or whether some patients had multiple hearings in a single year. The Alabama Department of Mental Health does not track the total number of people committed in Alabama by county probate judges.
In 2016, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency entered 1,423 people into the background check system who had been hospitalized involuntarily, less than a quarter of the number of commitment hearings.
A bill passed in 2015 requires probate judges to submit records to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency whenever an individual is involuntarily committed to psychiatric treatment in a hospital. Before the change, probate judges only had to report mentally ill people with a history of gun-related threats, which rarely happened, according to studies of the state's reporting system.
Although the 2015 bill expanded the scope of mental health reporting, it did not include any penalties for probate judges who don't comply. The bill also came after major changes to the mental health system in Alabama that cut the number of treatment beds and reduced the use of inpatient commitment.
Probate Judge Wes Allen of Pike County, president of the Alabama Probate Judges Association, said the lack of beds forces him to rely more heavily on outpatient commitment - which compels a person into treatment in the community. Alabama law does not require people forced into outpatient treatment to be reported to the background check system.
"We do a majority of outpatient commitment now because there aren't very many beds for inpatients commitment," he said.