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The Baker Act: protecting those with mental illness

by Lisa Tortorello

When you have an elderly loved one who resides in a long-term care facility, protecting his/her safety and dignity is probably your highest priority. If your friend or family member lives in Florida, he/she can feel secure under the protection of the Baker Act. Learn about this important legislation, here.

The Baker Act is a Florida law that prohibits the indiscriminate admission or retention of an individual to a state institution without just cause. The Baker Act protects all Florida residents with mental illness and was considered landmark legislation when it was enacted in the early 1970s.

Why was the Baker Act created?

Before the Baker Act was signed into law in 1971, a destitute person exhibiting signs of mental illness could be admitted to a Florida mental hospital with the signatures of three people and the approval of a county judge. At the time, the law required the committing judge to surrender the person to the sheriff until he/she was transferred to the hospital.

This meant children could be placed in hospitals with adults. It also meant that families, friends, parents or guardians could be charged for the person's care, the committed person could only correspond with one individual outside of the hospital, and no time frame was outlined to guide a judge in reconsidering the placement.

Maxine Baker was the Florida State Representative from Miami who sponsored the legislation, which aimed to do the following:

  1. Encourage voluntary commitments, as opposed to involuntary, when the patient was competent to consent
  2. Increase community care of people with mental illness
  3. Facilitate a person's return to normal community life
  4. Separate the process of hospitalization from the process of legal incompetency

What did the Baker Act establish?

When the Florida Legislature passed the Baker Act, also known as the Florida Mental Health Act, the new law established, among other things, the following items:

  1. A patient's bill of rights
  2. An individual's right to communicate with whomever he/she wants, receive and send unopened mail, and use his/her own possessions
  3. A patient's right to vote
  4. The prohibition of the placement of individuals with mental illness in jail, unless he/she had committed a criminal act

The Baker Act also mandated that court-appointed attorneys represent people for whom involuntary placement in a mental hospital is sought and that all involuntary cases be independently reviewed every six months.