With the help of two University of Virginia School of Law students, mental health legislation to address overcrowding in the state’s hospital emergency rooms recently became law.

Michael Ferguson ’24 and Clare Hachten ’24 of the State and Local Government Policy Clinic worked with state Sen. Creigh Deeds on bills to reform temporary detention orders, or TDOs, which allow courts to direct a law enforcement officer to take an at-risk person into custody and transport them to a specified facility for mental health treatment.

Ferguson assisted with SB 1302, which streamlines the process of securing a TDO for intoxicated individuals and allowing them to remain in a local hospital for treatment, and Hachten worked on SB 1299, which establishes a new process to reevaluate someone subjected to a TDO to see if they still meet the criteria to be hospitalized and, when appropriate, provides for their release with a discharge plan.

Deeds, who has spent much of his legislative career working to improve Virginia’s behavioral health system, said the state is facing a shortage of staffed psychiatric beds, meaning Virginians who are in crisis have to wait days for any to open up. His son killed himself in 2013 after he failed to receive court-ordered mental health treatment because a hospital bed could not be found.

The bills are aimed at freeing up beds for people who need them most.

“Some individuals stabilize before a bed is available and are discharged shortly upon admittance to the psychiatric hospital,” he said.

Bed shortages also can result when someone who is intoxicated is inappropriately sent to a psychiatric facility through a TDO, then quickly discharged.

“Neither of these scenarios is helpful to the individual, and they are a waste of limited resources in our mental health system,” Deeds said.

After the bills passed the General Assembly nearly unanimously, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed them into law March 22.

“Both bills will reduce the number of people waiting unnecessarily in our emergency rooms, limit unnecessary transfer to psychiatric hospitals and ensure people get an appropriate level of care,” Deeds said.

Starting this past fall, Professor Andrew Block, the clinic’s director, connected Ferguson and Hachten with Deeds to discuss the best course on reform efforts, and focused on TDO laws. The students met with stakeholders such as mental health providers and law enforcement, revised drafts of legislation, provided Deeds with talking points, worked with lawmakers to find compromise language and spoke at committee meetings.

Ferguson said SB 1302 allows hospitals to contact magistrates, who are more accessible than judges, for a temporary detention order and for authorities to release them from law enforcement custody sooner. He said witnessing and being a part of the legislative process showed him how challenging it can be to make improvements, and how it involves difficult compromises between valid competing interests.

“It also struck me the degree to which — in between the headlines and polarizing issues — there is a whole world of policy issues that people of all sides can agree are a problem and are willing to work together to fix,” he added. “These bills would not have been able to pass, much less by these overwhelming margins, without the willingness of both Sen. Deeds and his colleagues on the other side of the aisle to reach a compromise.”

Hachten said SB 1299 allows people whose condition has improved to return to their communities without having to go to a state hospital, and frees up law enforcement from having to wait with them in the hospital and then transport them to a psychiatric facility. She said one of her biggest takeaways was the importance of including stakeholders on the front end when devising legislation.

“We learned of bills that had been introduced in previous sessions but had not been successful in part because key stakeholders hadn’t been included in the development of the bills and were unsupportive of the bills as a result,” she added. “One of the most important things to do when trying to get people on board a specific bill is to make them feel included and heard.”

The clinic helped pass four bills this year, and a total of 14 over the past three years.

“We have a great group of students who, in a complicated political year, were able to help their legislative clients make real progress on important issues,” Block said. “Clare and Michael’s work with Sen. Deeds is a great example of the impact that students can have.”

Block said all the clinic students “did amazing work” and learned a lot. 

“While not all of their bills were signed into law, they made great contributions to making good policy and, I am confident, will see their fingerprints on successful future legislation,” he added.

Other clinic students helped lawmakers from both parties on additional legislation:

  • Working with Professor Katie Ryan ’92Samira Nematollahi ’23 and Ethan Young ’24 assisted Del. Carrie Coyner on two bills: to expand Virginia Literacy Act protections and services to students in grades 4-8, and to establish a working group to design a data portal for parents to track their children’s progress. They were signed into law March 26.
  • Working with Sen. Adam Ebbin, Tim Dodson ’24 and Demia Lee ’24 spoke in committee hearings, drafted amendments and provided support during committee hearings on legislation to create a legal cannabis market in Virginia.
  • Maya Artis ’24 and Michael Pruitt ’24 worked with stakeholders, help draft the final legislation, and spoke in committee in support of Del. Irene Shin’s bill to reduce the impact of fines and fees on juvenile defendants.
  • Madison Clark ’24 and McKayla Riter ’23 worked with Del. Mike Cherry to draft an amendment to Virginia’s Constitution that would provide a pathway to civil rights restoration for formerly incarcerated persons. The students wrote an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about their efforts.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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