SACRAMENTO — Whether forced treatment helps those with severe mental illness or violates their rights is at the heart of the debate over a bill passed Thursday by the Assembly.
AB1569 extends until 2017 a law that allows courts to mandate treatment for people with severe mental illness if they have history of violence or hospitalization. Laura's Law, which passed in 2002, is set to expire next year.
California's 58 counties are allowed to decide for themselves whether to implement the law. Only one, Nevada County, has done so. Counties are limited in how they can fund Laura's Law programs and cannot divert money from voluntary programs.
Assemblyman Mike Allen, D- Santa Rosa, said he sponsored the bill granting the extension because counties need to be able to compel people with severe and persistent mental illness to accept help.
"Laura's Law is simply a tool to provide this mentally ill population a needed treatment plan," he said during debate on the Assembly floor.
Other lawmakers argued that compulsory treatment is counterproductive and a throwback to an era when mentally ill people were kept in asylums.
"Involuntary treatment for people who have committed no crime is a slippery slope," said Chris Norby, R-Fullerton. "Up until the 1960s, there were people who were locked up for many years without having committed a crime."
The law also reinforces the false notion that people with mental illness are a danger to society, said Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata. The extension passed 65-3 and moves to the Senate.
The law is named for Laura Wilcox, who was 19 when she was shot dead in Nevada City, a Sierra foothills town about 80 miles northeast of Sacramento, by Scott Thorpe, who had schizophrenia.
Wilcox was filling in as a receptionist at a public mental health clinic during her winter break from college. Thorpe, who had a history of violence and had resisted his family's efforts to get him into treatment, came in for an appointment and went on a rampage that left three people, including Wilcox, dead.
Her parents led the campaign to legalize mandatory outpatient treatment.
California already permits short-term involuntary hospitalization for patients who have shown that they are a danger to themselves or others. But Laura's Law was supposed to be a preventative measure that would get patients into treatment before they did something harmful.
The law faces serious opposition from civil rights and disability rights groups.
But professionals who work closely with the mentally ill, including the California Psychiatric Association and the California State Sheriffs' Association, say the law should be extended because it offers a rare alternative to revolving door hospitalization and incarceration.