FARMINGTON — Far more county residents are being ordered to the state mental hospital than in years past.

The San Juan County District Attorney's Office started in 2012 to file petitions to commit mentally ill people at the request of law enforcement and health professionals, instead of just family members as it had in the past.

So far this year, 18 San Juan County residents were committed against their will to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas for a 30-day evaluation-and-treatment observation, said Joe Petrelli, the assistant district attorney who handles petitions and mental-competency hearings for the district attorney's office.

In 2011, the office filed petitions to commit just three people to the mental hospital. In the five years before that, a total of only three petitions were filed, Petrelli said

The office filed petitions to commit 20 people this year. One of the cases is pending. The only petition that was rejected by a judge was a case in which a respondent's relative came forward at the last minute and offered to oversee the person, Petrelli said.

Recent shootings in Connecticut and Colorado have raised questions across the country about how to manage the mentally ill.

"We've been upping our attention to those cases for the past year because that's the type of person that could commit the acts that happened" earlier this month, Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said. "Those are our concerns.


Not necessarily a school (shooting), but we see individuals who lash out at family members or people they don't know and they do have access to deadly weapons."

Petrelli said each case was referred to the district attorney's office. Relatives, psychiatrists, hospital workers and police officers can request a court-ordered commitment, he said.

In years past, it was the district attorney's policy only to pursue a commitment if a person's relative requested it, O'Brien said.

"It became apparent a lot of people were falling through the cracks," he said. The office "decided we needed to take a harder look at these cases."

The cases are tried in front of District Judge Karen Townsend. The courtroom is closed to the public and the records are sealed.

Prosecutors have to prove people are serious threats to themselves or others because of a mental illness. They also must prove an involuntary commitment is the least drastic way to treat the person and that they will benefit from the commitment.

Oftentimes the person has attempted suicide or threatened another person, Petrelli said.

If the petition is approved, the person will be sent to the mental hospital in Las Vegas for up to 30 days to be evaluated and treated. If doctors want to keep the person, prosecutors in San Miguel County, where the hospital is, can file petitions for two additional, six-month commitments and then for an entire year. After that the patient has to appear in front of a judge every year to continue commitment.

"We take these seriously," Petrelli said. "We are depriving someone of their freedom for 30 days with the possibility of more."

Farmington police officers have also increased their focus on the mentally ill in recent years, Lt. Taft Tracy said.

The department increased its training for identifying and talking to mentally ill people after a woman who had a history of mental illness and numerous arrests for erratic behavior ran over and seriously injured a Farmington police officer in February 2011, Tracy said.

The woman was convicted of a felony earlier this month and is serving her sentence in the state's mental hospital as a condition of her plea agreement.

"We do what we can," Tracy said. "That's where the training comes in, we can take them to the hospital ... talk to their families, encourage them to talk to their doctors and work with medical personnel."

If mentally ill people appear dangerous, law officers can take them to San Juan Regional Medical Center for up to seven days, which is the longest a person can be committed before having a court hearing.

The hospital didn't disclose how often that type of commitment happens

Some mental health advocates worry that recent shootings will lead to an increase in involuntary commitments, said Shela Silverman, the director of the Mental Health Association of New Mexico. 

"The result will be that they will try to pick up more people and put them in the hospital," said Silverman, of Las Vegas. "It's a cycle. And it's going to get worse."

Her association lobbies policy makers to invest in less drastic services for the mentally ill, such as halfway houses.

There are no such houses or programs in Farmington, she said.

Greg, a 36 year old from Shiprock, has lived in a group home for mentally ill people in Las Vegas for nearly a year, he said.

He was released from the mental hospital a year ago after a brief commitment during which he was evaluated and treated. When he was discharged, he entered a group home where he works around the house and pays the home with his social security money.

"It helps, there are nice people here," he said of the group home. "You can shower as long as you want and smoke."

Greg said he moved from Shiprock to Farmington in his 20s where he struggled to pay for a small apartment while taking medication for a mental illness.

He ended up in jail once and checked himself into the hospital in 2011 because he was hungry and had constant headaches.

"I did have a life on my own and I did things for myself but I didn't have any money for food," he said.

Silverman said there are more people like Greg in group homes throughout Las Vegas. People from San Juan County and other parts of the state who were treated for a short stint at the mental hospital and now live in group homes near the hospital because none exist in their hometowns.

"People who come here from Farmington stay here," she said. "They never go back home."