Orange County supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to implement Laura's Law, making it the first large county in California to fully adopt the program allowing court-ordered treatment for the severely mentally ill.
The law, which was passed by California in 2002 but required each county to adopt its own program, has languished for several years and has been fully implemented only in tiny Nevada County near Lake Tahoe.
But Laura's Law began receiving renewed attention in Orange County following the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless schizophrenic who died after a violent confrontation with Fullerton police.
On Tuesday, most speakers urged the board to move forward with embracing the law, which would allow family members, licensed mental health providers, police officers and others to refer potential patients for treatment. Dozens of supporters in the chamber wore lime green stickers reading, "Thank you for Laura's Law."
But several also cautioned that implementing the law could lead to the infringement of patient's rights.
Richard Krzyzanowski of the California Assn. of Mental Health Peer Run Organizations said the law struck him as "an expensive government intervention into the private lives of its citizens."
The proposal before the supervisors calls for allocating about $4.4 million per year in Mental Health Services Act funds to provide assessment and treatment for an estimated 120 people. Additional funds will need to be allotted for legal and other costs associated with the program.
All five supervisors voted to move forward with the proposed implementation after thanking audience members for sharing often painful personal stories.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he strongly supported the measure, as long as the county's healthcare agency carefully tracks program outcomes.
Mary Hale, county director of Behavioral Health Services, stressed that the county has a number of metrics that staff members will tally from the program's start. She said the program would likely be fully implemented by October.
Supervisor Pat Bates, who said she voted for Laura's Law as a state legislator, said she would be glad to implement a program that can help "intercept that downward spiral" that for many becomes inescapable.
"This is an opportunity," she said. "I don't want to miss it."
To qualify, a person must suffer from mental illness, be unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision and have a history of lack of compliance with treatment, among other qualifications. They must also have a recent history of violence, jailings or hospitalizations because of mental illness.
Ron Thomas, father of Kelly Thomas, told reporters after the vote that he was "relieved."
Although Laura's Law might not have saved his son, he said, he hopes that the program will help the other "Kelly Thomases out there."
Thomas gestured toward an area of the county civic center where homeless people spend their days.