(CBS) If Jared Loughner, the man accused of killing six and injuring 12 in Arizona last Saturday, turns out to be suffering from schizophrenia, as many doctors have surmised, why shouldn't the state have had the power to lock him in a mental ward BEFORE he went on a rampage?
That might sound like common sense, but the law in most places is designed principally to protect individual rights. If you don't appear to be an immediate threat and you haven't broken the law, authorities are hard-pressed to commit you for more than a few days.
But some prominent doctors are starting to question that logic. Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University, is one of them.
"We are a country where individual freedom is prized and held as almost sacred," Lieberman told CBS News. But, he says, "People who have a clearly diagnosed, severe mental disorder that are psychotic in nature - for these individuals there should be a real set of incentives, if not requirements, that they be given treatment, not waiting until they do something to themselves or someone else."
Lieberman cautions that he hasn't evaluated Loughner, but "there is a very high likelihood that he suffers from a psychotic disorder and most likely it is schizophrenia," he says.
The irony, says Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, is that "in Arizona a person assessing him would have had more freedom to hospitalize him than in other states."
According to Duckworth, Arizona law says people can be hospitalized against their will if they are "in need of treatment and may benefit from treatment." The standard in most other states is "acute danger to self or others," a much higher bar.
Duckworth says there is another problem here - limited access to care. Arizona has the second lowest number of psychiatric beds in the country, just 5.9 per 100,000 people, according to a 2008 study from the Treatment Advocacy Center, which advocates for the mentally ill.
From what we know so far, Loughner was never evaluated by a mental health professional, despite erratic behavior at school and with friends.
"When someone collapses in a room people know to call 911 or do CPR," says Leiberman. "But when someone has a mental disturbance, people don't know what to do."
Lieberman believes it's vital to teach family members and the public how to recognize the signs of psychotic behavior so they will know how to react and how to work with someone to get help.
As for patients' civil rights?
"The last person to have benefited from his civil rights was Loughner," says Lieberman. "His life wasn't a happy life. He wasn't getting an education or a career and now he's gotten himself into a situation where there is no prospect for the future but for prison or a mental institution."
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
What's more important? The public's right to safety or a patient's civil liberties?