Back in the 1970s, civil libertarians succeeded in ending the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest type of incarceration. In doing so, however, they pushed the pendulum too far in the other direction, to the point where our society now has trouble protecting itself from deranged individuals such as Jared Lee Loughner. Given this background, Bill Galston's suggestion in The New Republic this week that we make it easier to incarcerate dangerous, mentally disturbed individuals is a worthy one, and one that has the potential to generate left-right cooperation, which is a rare commodity these days.
I agree with Bill on this issue, and his is not actually a new idea. I served in the White House during the Virginia Tech massacre — in the same role that Bill had under President Clinton — and worked with HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt on setting up a task force to look into the massacre and to come up with ways to prevent such events in the future. One of the conclusions of the task force's report was that privacy concerns were trumping basic safety in terms of the ability of educators and social workers to identify unbalanced individuals who were a danger to themselves and others.
Other key findings in the report were that we need to make sure that criminal databases have accurate and complete information on individuals prohibited from possessing firearms; to improve awareness and communication about warning signs; and to get people with mental illness the services they need, be it on an inpatient or an outpatient basis. In addition, the report gave specific suggestions of actions that needed to take place at the federal and at the state level to implement the report's conclusions. Unfortunately, the report's recommendations received precious little attention at the time, and obviously have not yet been acted upon, but it is high time that Congress and the states start fixing this problem.