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State Lawmakers Extend “Kendra’s Law” For 5 Years, Despite Concerns That It Targets Men Of Color

Despite calls to make the law permanent, New York’s State Legislature voted to extend “Kendra’s Law” for 5 years. The New York Civil Liberties Union has stated that Kendra’s Law unconstitutionally expands the circumstance under which the State may compel persons with psychiatric disabilities to undergo treatment against his or her will. The law also forces them to participate involuntarily in mental health programs even if those individuals do not meet existing criteria for involuntary hospitalization and/or medication. Finally, the enforcement mechanism of Kendra’s Law directs police to bring an allegedly non-complying individual to a hospital for a 72-hour “examination” to determine whether the individual meets the standards for involuntary hospitalization in the absence of any probable cause that the person is, in fact, a current danger to him/herself or others.

“The right of a person to determine his or her course of medical treatment has long been recognized as a fundamental right by the courts in this country,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “Kendra’s Law not only undermines that basic right but also has been used disparately against men of color, including black men who are five times more likely to be recipients of commitment orders as whites. People of color often do not have access to mental health services and often may be targeted by law enforcement for arrests and removal to mental health facilities.”

Subjecting those with psychiatric disabilities to treatments ordered by the court does not appear to alleviate the problem. A study conducted by Bellevue Hospital found that court orders did not lead to increased patient compliance with treatment; did not lead to lower rates of hospitalizations; did not lead to lower rates of arrest or violent acts committed; and did not lead to reduction in symptoms or increase in functioning. Providing higher quality services and taking extra care to coordinate them was demonstrated to reduce the frequency of hospitalization.

The NYCLU is concerned about other modifications to Kendra’s Law, including an evaluation of its effectiveness to be completed for the legislature one year prior to the 5th year of its extension. The Office of Mental Health would direct the conduct of that evaluation which raises concerns since OMH is the leading proponent for enactment of Kendra’s Law. The NYCLU believes an independent body should design and conduct such a review and that its evaluation should be based on valid, scientific principles—that is, an evaluation that would compare results of court-ordered psychiatric treatment to the results of psychiatric treatment that individuals receive voluntarily.

In addition, the NYCLU questions the modification of Kendra’s Law that diminishes the rights of people with mental illness with respect to their health proxy. As written, doctors would not be bound by the wishes stated by health proxies submitted by those with psychiatric disabilities as they would be bound by healthy proxies for those with physical ailments. An individual’s right to determine to accept or reject medical treatment, even if their decision appears to others risky or unwise, has been established in New York State by the Court of Appeals. The modifications to Kendra’s Law remove a psychiatrically disabled person’s right to self-determination.

The legislature may have made the best of a seriously flawed situation. The NYCLU calls on law makers to continue working on adjustments to Kendra’s Law and to abandon the costly administrative mechanism that drives the geographic disparity and racial and socioeconomic biases evident in the implementation of the law.

Click here to read more on Kendra’s Law.

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