Lawmakers consider expanding mental health law

By Laura Olson

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 3 2013 3:59 p.m. MST

In this July 7, 2011 file photo, Amanda Wilcox, left, accompanied by her husband Nick, second from left, the parents of Laura Wilcox, who was killed by a mentally ill person in a 2001 Nevada County shooting spree, lobbied against the death penalty during a hearing at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. The Wilcox's are now urging state lawmakers to approve legislation aimed at helping more counties implement Laura's Law, named after their daughter. The law lets counties pursue court ordered mental health treatment for those who refuse to get help on their own.

Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Lawmakers from both parties are seeking to expand a decade-old law that lets counties pursue court-ordered mental health treatment for those who refuse to get help on their own.

The renewed focus on Laura's Law, which is in place in just two of California's 58 counties, comes as lawmakers seek ways to stop the kinds of mass violence experienced last year in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo. Both shootings involved young men with mental health troubles.

The law, enacted by the Legislature in 2002, can be used only if a judge finds that a patient is not getting treatment voluntarily, has a history of hospitalization or violent behavior, and may be dangerous.

A lack of money and the ongoing controversy over forcing the mentally ill into treatment has led most counties to decide against enacting it. Some object to forced treatment if no crime has been committed. Others say the prospect could deter the mentally ill from seeking treatment voluntarily for fear they could wind up under court-ordered supervision.

Top Democratic lawmakers now say the benefits outweigh the risks, and Republicans who oppose firearms restrictions are turning their attention to mental health issues as a way to address the violence.

Five lawmakers, including the Democratic leader of the state Senate and the Republican leader in the Assembly, have introduced bills that would expand the law or provide funding to support it:

— SB585 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and AB1367 by Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa, would allow counties to use Proposition 63 money for Laura's Law. The Mental Health Services Act, which was authored by Steinberg, was approved by voters eight years ago and raises $1 billion a year for early intervention and treatment through a special tax on millionaires.

— SB664, by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, lets counties use existing revenue for Laura's Law, implement it without a vote of their board of supervisors and clarifies that counties can partially implement the law. Los Angeles County has a small pilot program, but other counties have objected that they lack the legal authority to start limited treatment.

— SB755, by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, adds someone treated under Laura's Law to the list of those prohibited from owning firearms, among other provisions.

— AB1265, by Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, extends the initial period of court-ordered treatment under Laura's Law from six months to one year.

Steinberg said state funding should not differentiate between those who receive services voluntarily or involuntarily. He and Prop. 63 co-author Rusty Selix said the greater emphasis should be on getting more money for mental health services in general.

Selix, executive director of Mental Health America of California, is among those worrying that people treated against their will may be reluctant to seek help in the future. He also worries that Laura's Law could be seen as a panacea, when it would in fact apply to a small population that cannot be helped under other laws.

Yee, a child psychologist, is impatient with mental health professionals who he said are reluctant to seek involuntary treatment even when it seems to be in their patients' best interest. Other opposition, he said, seems to be from those who worry that spending more money on Laura's Law will siphon money from their programs.

"I'm just sorry that it took the Connecticut shooting to spur individuals to understand the importance of Laura's Law," Yee said.

Yee cites the case of a 19-year-old Orange County man whose mother was unable to get him treatment after he became an adult. He now faces criminal charges of threatening to blow up a bank if a teller didn't give him $1,000. Orange County officials opted not to participate in Laura's Law in 2011 because of the cost.

"Lack of treatment means now he's going to go to prison," Yee said.

California is among 44 states with laws permitting court-ordered treatment programs, although implementation varies widely because of legal and other barriers.

Only one California county - Nevada County, where the law's namesake lived - has fully implemented a court-ordered program.

Nineteen-year-old Laura Wilcox was one of three people killed in 2001 when Scott Harlan Thorpe opened fire first at an outpatient mental health clinic, then at a nearby restaurant.

"We're very disappointed that it hasn't been implemented throughout the state," Amanda Wilcox, Laura's mother, told The Associated Press. "The outcomes have been better than anyone imagined."

Proponents cite the success of New York's Kendra's Law, the pattern for Laura's Law. It led to significant reductions in the number of patients who were homeless, hospitalized, attempted suicide or engaged in crimes or substance abuse.

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