In a previous era,Theodoric James might have been sent inside St. Elizabeths’ walls. (Jeffrey MacMillan/for The Washington Post)

The District government was made well aware of James’s unfitness to take care of himself, but city agencies defended their response by explaining that they are severely limited in helping adults that don’t want their help.

Lawyer Patrick Hand writes in a Post op-ed this weekend that it is “a serious flaw with existing law that government workers cannot intervene” in cases like James’s. He calls for changes in the District’s involuntary commitment law, the Ervin Act, which dates to 1965.

”Getting a person committed as an inpatient for an extended period is next to impossible,” Hand writes. “More than once, when a client sought my advice for getting treatment for a loved one, all I could advise was to pray that the person acted dangerously in public so the police would take him in. ... In the name of civil liberties, we are killing people with kindness.”

The James case highlights the deeply troublesome confluence between maintaining civil rights and preventing what are eminently preventable tragedies.

The Ervin Act dates to the era of mental health de-institutionalization, a reaction to the days when scores were involuntarily committed to vast, dismal asylums with little consideration for the civil rights of the committed. Hand suggests the pendulum has swung too far toward civil rights.

The involuntary commitment law has been amended on occasion since, most notably in 2002, but its most important features preserving the rights of citizens have been preserved, if not strengthened. I’ve reached out to some mental health experts to hear what they think of the current law and whether involuntary commitments should be easier.

One person who is open to commitment reform is Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who told me last week that he’s asked for a “thorough investigation” of the James case from Deputy Mayor Beatriz “B.B.” Otero, who oversees the agencies that might have intervened.

”A number of efforts were made,” Gray said. “Unless you can demonstrate a danger to themselves or others, they get to make their own decisions, flawed as they may be.” He said the probe could result in an effort to “go back and look at the statute” for changes.

But before this debate progresses much further, there needs to be some certainty that the failures here belonged to the law and not to agencies who are using the law as a mask for their own failures — in other words, we need to know that the government in fact did everything it could have done. I asked Gray if he would release a written report of Otero’s findings; he was noncommittal.