Los Angeles County leaders voted Tuesday to fully implement Laura's Law, a state statute that gives counties the option to pursue court-ordered outpatient treatment for people with serious mental illness.
Praised by advocates who say it offers a new tool to family members of adults with severe untreated mental illness, the law was recently adopted by San Francisco and Orange counties.
Los Angeles County launched a small outpatient treatment program soon after Laura's Law took effect in 2003, but that program was purely voluntary. On Tuesday, the supervisors voted 4 to 0, with Don Knabe absent, to expand the existing outpatient treatment program from 20 to 300 slots and create a team that will reach out to potential patients and manage the court filing process when necessary.
Once the new program is up and running, a family member, treatment provider or law enforcement officer will be able to ask the county to file for a court order requiring someone to undergo treatment. Those who don't comply can be taken into custody on a 72-hour psychiatric hold. Patients can't be forced to take medication under the law, although there are other mechanisms for court-ordered medication.
Laura's Law has drawn some opposition from civil liberties advocates and others who say court-ordered treatment violates patients' rights.
The annual cost of the expanded county program will be a little under $10 million, to be primarily covered by state mental health funds and Medi-Cal.
In Los Angeles County, the proposal was tucked into a broader three-year plan for mental health services and passed with less controversy than in other counties that have recently adopted the measure.
"This is a compassionate and cost-effective approach to assisting those who have mental illness to be able to receive the necessary treatment to be able to restore them and become again a productive member of society," said Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, the law's main proponent on the board.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who was at the meeting Tuesday to report on a separate effort to expand diversion of mentally ill defendants from the criminal justice system, said in an interview that Laura's Law is a "valuable tool" that could help keep some people out of trouble.
Some advocates praised the move to adopt the law. D.J. Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., said in a statement: "For many of the most seriously ill it is the last offramp before jail" and will help prevent acts of violence.
Others, like Mark-Anthony Johnson, of local advocacy group Dignity and Power Now, cautioned that the move could further criminalize those with mental illness.
Johnson said Laura's Law "plays into the fear that folks with mental health conditions are violent people." And he expressed concern that people of color would be disproportionately targeted for court-ordered treatment.
Supervisor Gloria Molina voted in favor of the proposal, but echoed some of those concerns, saying county officials would have to be careful in implementing the program.
"We don't want to go back to the day when people were institutionalized in a way that was very harmful to themselves and to us as a society," she said.
County mental health officials said details of the court component of the law were still to be worked out, but that the emphasis would remain on getting people to voluntarily engage in treatment.