Danger: The Impact of One Word’s Definition on a Law

Ashley Cheff


After the United States Supreme Court case O’Conner v. Donaldson 422 US 563, (1975), state legislatures became responsible for defining danger in their states’ involuntary civil commitment law. Many states settled on a narrow definition of danger, that is limited and very specific criteria determining what behavior is sufficient for taking potentially dangerous, mentally ill individuals into custody for treatment purposes. This approach was taken as means to protect civil liberties. Today, the large number of tragedies that have occurred in America over the last ten years have warranted debate over whether these laws are so strict that involuntary civil commitment cannot adequately divert individuals into treatment.

In this paper, I conduct a comparative analysis of three case studies. I analyze the involuntary civil commitment laws of three states that define danger differently, namely Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Mississippi. In this study I seek to determine whether a broad or narrow definition of danger impacts the ability of a state to divert an individual into treatment.

My study found that the definition of danger does not significantly impact the diversion of potentially dangerous, mentally ill individuals into involuntary civil commitment programs. However, my study identified a different factor- the number of psychiatric beds available in involuntary civil commitment programs- does have an impact on the programs. I was able to conclude that bed availability plays a major role in determining how involuntary civil commitment is used in a state. However, when bed availability in a state is sufficient to support the mentally ill population, the definition of danger is able to play a slightly larger role in the process of diverting individuals into involuntary civil commitment, as shown by the state of Mississippi.




policy, mental health

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