San Luis Obispo County could join a small but growing list of jurisdictions implementing Laura’s Law, the state legislation that makes it possible for courts to order out-patient treatment for people with severe mental illness.
The Board of Supervisors appeared to be leaning that way, following a preliminary discussion at last week’s board meeting.
The board unanimously directed staff to return with a more detailed analysis of what implantation would mean for San Luis Obispo County, as well as any alternative programs that might accomplish the same goals.
That’s excellent news.
Laura’s Law provides another way to reach out to individuals who refuse treatment, even though their conditions are deteriorating and they aren’t in any shape to survive without help. It’s especially useful for families that have exhausted other options and have nowhere to turn.
Here’s a summary of how it works: The law allows family members, roommates and certain health professionals to file a petition requesting treatment for someone who is unwilling to seek help on his or her own. That starts a process that includes an evaluation and, if warranted, can lead to a hearing before a judge in civil court. (It doesn’t always come to that; individuals can opt for voluntary treatment at any point in the process. In other counties that have implemented the program, the vast majority do exactly that.)
If a case does wind up in court and a judge finds it necessary, a court order can be issued that mandates out-patient treatment.
Individuals who don’t cooperate – for example, they don’t show up in court -- can be required to undergo an examination to determine whether they are a danger to themselves or others, in which case they can be hospitalized under an involuntary commitment.
Mental health experts are by no means universally sold on Laura’s Law; some say forcing people into treatment isn’t effective.
Another consideration: The program is expensive, and the state leaves it to counties to foot the bill.
It would cost San Luis Obispo County an estimated $575,000 per year -- and because the criteria for participation are so strict, the number of people who can be helped is extremely limited.
Yet as Supervisor Adam Hill pointed out, if a life can be saved “it seems to transcend cost-benefit analysis.”
Sheriff Ian Parkinson made an especially compelling argument to the Board of Supervisors when he pointed to the number of homicides in the county that have been committed by mentally ill individuals. While it’s estimated that less than 4 percent of homicides in the United States are committed by people with mental illness, “that’s not the statistic here,” Parkinson said. “Over half of ours (since Dec. 25, 2010) have been committed by people with mental illness…We’ve got to do something different.”
We agree. That said, Laura’s Law is not a panacea.
There is no fail-safe way to ensure that someone with severe mental illness will not commit a violent crime – something we noted following the 2014 killing spree in Isla Vista that left six students dead, including San Luis Obispo High graduate Christopher Michaels-Martinez. “We aren’t suggesting that a Laura’s Law or a gun violence restraining order or some other solution is guaranteed to prevent another tragic mass killing,” we said then. “But just because no solution is perfect is no reason to give up.”
We have not changed our minds.
Laura’s Law can open a door to treating an extremely hard-to-reach population of mentally ill people who, despite the best efforts of family, friends, colleagues and mental health professionals, are refusing the help they desperately need.
We strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to adopt a program – be it Laura’s Law or a hybrid – both as a public safety measure and as a means of possibly saving mentally ill individuals, along with their families, from lifetimes of pain and regret.
A Closer Look at Laura's Law
Laura’s Law, passed by the California Legislature in 2002, was named for Laura Wilcox, a college sophomore who was working as a receptionist at the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department in 2001 when a mentally ill man shot and killed her and two other people. Laura’s Law sets up a process whereby a mentally ill person can be ordered by the court to receive in-home treatment.
It is left to individual counties to decide whether they want to implement the law. According to a San Luis Obispo County staff report, 11 counties have opted in to the program.
Among other criteria, individuals covered by Laura’s Law must be:
• At least 18 years old • Suffer from a mental illness
• Unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision
• Have a history of lack of compliance with treatment for mental illness
• Have a recent history of hospitalizations for mental illness or incarcerations; or a recent history of one or more acts of serious violence or threats of violence toward self or others • Have been offered the opportunity to participate in voluntary treatment
• Have a condition that is substantially deteriorating
There also are strict criteria for what the programs must provide, and counties must bear the cost – the state provides no assistance. One particularly challenging mandate for counties like San Luis Obispo: Housing must be made available for individuals who need it, either because they’re homeless or because their current living situations aren’t appropriate. County staff estimates it would cost $180,000 annually to provide housing. Staffing would be the biggest expense, at $388,000.