Santa Clara Co. supervisors urged to enact Laura's Law, homeless advocates opposed

What frequently happens when a person suffering from mental illness, often someone who is also homeless, refuses psychiatric treatment?

"Families are thrown into crisis after crisis, making 911 calls. Hospitalizations, rapid releases, no stabilization, follow-ups or interventions," says Kathy Burden of the National Alliance On Mental Illness Santa Clara.

She was one of many mental health workers and elected San Jose officials who publicly urged the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to enact Laura's Law at its meeting Tuesday.

Under Laura's Law, California counties can allow judges to order psychiatric treatment whether someone wants it or not. It only applies to those who have been either hospitalized or incarcerated before.

"This is for people who have had repeated run-ins with the law, have spent time in jail, and are in this endless cycle of being picked up and taken to jail or dragged to local emergency rooms," says San Jose City Councilman Matt Nahan.

Under the proposal, the treatment would be for 90 days, not in lock-up, but as outpatient care.  Medications would not be forced upon anyone.

Laura's Law was passed by the state in 2001 after 19-year-old Laura Wilcox was killed while working as a receptionist at the Nevada County Department of Behavioral Health. The man who killed Wilcox was a former patient at the county's outpatient mental health clinic and was known to resist treatment.

Five Bay Area counties have enacted it including San Francisco.

Homeless advocates oppose it claiming there are not enough beds available for the mentally ill as it is.

"It is not well defined. It doesn't determine who or how people are judged to be mentally unstable. Or mentally qualified to come into the program. Or when the person is cured to get out of the program," says Robert Aguirre of the Santa Clara County Union of Homeless.

Aguirre also said in an Op-ed to San Jose Spotlight that Laura's Law was unfair because it could "potentially affect the civil liberties of possibly hundreds or thousands of people in Santa Clara County."

"I don't see how the status quo is better than what we are offering. We are offering 90 days to give people a fighting chance of regaining a semblance of normalcy," says Mahan

Officials estimate the program could serve about 50 patients a year. It could cost an estimated $10 million to implement.

Bay City News contributed to this report.