PORTLAND — Information about people in Maine who have been ordered to undergo mental health treatment will be submitted to the national database used to determine if a person is prohibited from buying a gun, according to a state official.
Beginning in the next few months, the data will be sent by the court system to the Maine Department of Public Safety and then on to the database maintained by the FBI, according to Anne Jordan, former commissioner of public safety, who now works for the court system.
Jordan said Monday that no date had been set for implementation of the program but that it would begin before the courts’ next administrative week, set to begin April 29.
Under federal law, people who have been committed by a judge to a mental health institution for treatment are prohibited from possessing firearms.
Jordan said Monday that the timing of the data transfer implementation was not connected to the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. She was hired in May by Leigh I. Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, to improve efficiencies in the judiciary. One of the tasks she was assigned last year was getting mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, Jordan said Monday.
Efforts to reach Saufley were unsuccessful Monday.
In 2008, the Maine Legislature passed a law requiring that the Department of Public Safety send mental health records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. Since then, neither state nor federal funds have been made available to digitize the backlog of paper files and transfer them to NICS.
Maine did not qualify for federal grants because state law was not 100 percent in compliance with the federal guidelines, Jordan said.
At least one Maine legislator has submitted a bill this session to fund the transfer of information to NICS.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said Monday in an email that individuals’ privacy rights should be balanced against the need for public safety.
“It’s important that the exchange of information about people’s mental health status is limited to the specific purpose of protecting safety,” she said. “Information about people with mental illness should not be an open book, and there must be protections in place to prevent abuse.”
Since 2009, when the state law went into effect, Maine has been required to report to NICS the mental health records of individuals who have been:
• Involuntarily committed after a court hearing.
• Found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity.
• Found incompetent to stand trial on a criminal charge.
So far, it only has submitted records for 35 individuals who met either of the latter two categories.
Involuntary committals are handled in the state’s district courts in eight locations — Bangor, Rockland, Waterville, Augusta, Lewiston, West Bath, Portland and Biddeford — which should make the transfer a bit easier, Jordan said Monday.
Over the past five years, an average of 1,035 petitions per year asking that a person be committed involuntarily have been filed, according to statistics posted on the court system’s website. Judges handled 1,024 cases in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012.
The statistics kept are just the number of petitions filed, Jordan said. The outcome of those cases — whether an individual is ordered committed — has not been compiled by the courts, Jordan said. Once the information is compiled for the national database, information about how many of those petitions resulted in an order of committal should be available.
Jordan said there is a backlog of about 5,000 cases filed since 2008 that will not be sent to NICS until after the court system converts from paper to digital records. The process could take up to a decade and cost more than $10 million, Saufley has said. That conversion has not yet been funded by the Legislature.
Maine is one of 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, to have submitted fewer than 100 records, according to a November 2011 report issued by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns is a coalition of more than 700 mayors from around the country committed to preventing criminals from illegally obtaining guns and using them, according to information on its website.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, Hallowell Mayor Charlotte Warren and Augusta Mayor William Stokes are listed as the members of the coalition from Maine.
“I think it’s terrific that they are going to do this,” Stokes, who works in the Maine attorney general’s office, said Monday. “Whatever should be reported by law should be reported. I’m pleased the chief has decided to do this. It’s really a matter of public safety.”