Starting next week, San Francisco will officially become the fifth county in the state of California to implement Laura’s law, a measure that allows judges the authority to force severely mentally ill people to get treatment.
The history of Laura’s Law
Laura’s Law got its name from 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, who was killed in 2001 by a psychiatric client at a clinic in Nevada City.
Here are the basics of how Laura’s Law works: when family members, roommates, and certain health professionals believe that an individual who refuses treatment seriously needs it, they can file a petition that requests that person receive treatment regardless of their unwillingness. The process starts with an evaluation and, if it is found to be necessary, can proceed to a hearing before a judge in civil court. If the judge finds it necessary to prescribe treatment, then they will receive outpatient treatment.
At any point during this process, the individual in question can opt for voluntary treatment.
What’s more, if individuals don’t cooperate with the process, a court order can be issued that mandates hospitalization under an involuntary commitment. This is generally only done when they are believed to be a danger to themselves or to others.
Reactions to Laura’s Law
In San Francisco and the rest of California, Laura’s Law has been received with mixed opinions. Supporters of Laura’s Law point to the obvious benefit it may provide of reaching out to and helping the mentally ill in the San Francisco area. Even though the plan is not perfect, and can’t be guaranteed to prevent crime or save lives, its supporters believe that there is no harm in trying.
Opponents of Laura’s Law, however, have some reasonable critiques of the law. Some mental health experts, for example, are against the law because they believe that forcing people into treatment isn’t effective. Beyond this, there are concerns over how the law will be used—some fear it will be used disproportionately to target people of color.
Public health officials in San Francisco believe that it will help about 100 people each year, due to the strict eligibility requirements. At an estimated cost of $40,000 per person per year, the total cost of the program each year is $4 million.
Hopefully the good will outweigh the bad in San Francisco, and people who need help will receive it because of Laura’s Law.