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Los Angeles County supervisors vote to implement Laura's Law

L.A. County supervisors vote 4 to 0 to implement Laura's Law for those with serious mental illness
Advocate cautions backers of California's Laura's Law not to criminalize those with mental illness
$10-million cost of expanding L.A. County's mental health treatment program to be partly covered by Medi-Cal

Los Angeles County leaders voted Tuesday to fully implement Laura's Law, a state law that allows counties to pursue court-ordered outpatient treatment for people with serious mental illness.

The law was recently adopted by San Francisco and Orange counties. Los Angeles County launched a small program soon after Laura's Law took effect in 2003, but the county's current program is purely voluntary.

The supervisors voted 4 to 0, with Don Knabe absent, to expand the existing outpatient treatment program from 20 to 300 slots and to create a team tasked with reaching out to potential patients and managing the court filing process when necessary.

The vote, which will expand funding for outpatient treatment in the county, will allow a family member, treatment provider or law enforcement officer to ask a court to order someone to undergo treatment. Patients, however, can't be forced to take medication.

The annual cost of the expanded program will be a little under $10 million, but that is expected to be primarily covered by state mental health funds and Medi-Cal.

Laura's Law has been praised by advocates who say it gives a new tool to family members of adults with severe untreated mental illness. But it has also drawn opposition from civil liberties advocates and others who say court-ordered treatment infringes on patients' rights.

Both sides voiced their views to the supervisors Tuesday.

Brittney Weissman, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Los Angeles chapter, told the supervisors: "Laura's Law helps very ill individuals -- who often don't recognize that they're sick -- get well and stay in the community so that they can later continue in treatment on their own."

Others, such as Mark-Anthony Johnson of local advocacy group Dignity and Power Now, cautioned the supervisors 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 concerns 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 to strike the right balance 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.

The main proponent of Laura's Law on the board, Michael D. Antonovich, said: "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."

County mental health officials said details of the court component of the law are still to be worked out, but that the emphasis will remain on getting people to voluntarily engage in treatment.

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more L.A. County news.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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