January 26, 2013

State courts to send mental illness cases to FBI background checks office

Limited funds have stymied state's effort to digitizing old records and send the names of dangerous persons to federal authorities, who use those records to screen firearms buyers

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Mentally ill people who pose a risk to society or themselves are legally prohibited from owning guns under federal law, but Maine for years has been unable to add the names of such people to the national background database.

click image to enlarge

Maine Chief Justice Leigh Ingalls Saufley

AP file photo by Robert F. Bukaty

The problem is that case records in Maine's court system exist only on paper, and gathering those records is a time-consuming process.

The Maine Legislature six years ago passed a law to address the problem, but nothing has been done because neither the state nor the federal government has provided the court system with any additional money.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley plans to fix the problem, despite the lack of funding.

Starting this spring, the staff at Maine's 38 courts will begin collecting those names and passing them on to the Maine Department of Public Safety, which will then hand them over to the FBI, which manages the national database.

While there is not enough staff to tackle the backlog of names, court staff will file the paperwork from all new cases to the database as the cases proceed through the court system, Saufley said in an interview Friday.

The court system will be able to reduce the backlog when its records are eventually digitized, according to Saufley.

She decided to move forward on the issue last spring, hiring Anne Jordan, former commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, to work on number of procedural issues facing the court system, including this one.

Saufley made this decision long before the shooting last month at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where a mentally disturbed 20-year-old man killed his mother at home, and then 20 children and six educators at the school, before taking his own life. The "horrible" incident affirmed the importance of taking steps to protect the public, Saufley said.

"I don't think the tragedy there has changed our focus, but it does have us talking with various stakeholders who are also interested in improving safety," she said.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who co-chairs the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he expects there will strong, bipartisan support for Saufley's decision.

"I applaud what the chief justice is doing," he said, adding that it's another example of the Legislature asking the judiciary to take on a task without providing additional money.

People on both sides of the gun control debate agree that the current law needs to be enforced, and this is a welcome step forward, said Leslie Manning, president of the board of the Maine Council of Churches and former regional coordinator for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

"It's common ground we can build on," she said.

Nobody knows how many backlogged cases there are in Maine, although the number of cases in which people are committed to mental institutions on an emergency basis prior to a court hearing is less than 1,000 a year, Jordan said. Committing somone to a mental institution, except for short-term emergencies, requires a court hearing in which the person has the right to a court-appointed attorney.

To address the backlog, and also to improve efficiency and better serve the public, Saufley said, the court system needs to digitize its records. Currently, all criminal and civil case records are on paper only. Maine lags behind all New England states in moving to a digital record-keeping system for its courts.

Digitizing records would cost $10 million to $15 million, Saufley said. She is asking Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature this session to allocate $350,000 to help the court system create a plan for digitizing its records.

Federal law prohibits possession of a firearm or ammunition by any person who has been "adjudicated as a mental defective" or involuntarily "committed to any mental institution."

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