While it may have taken national tragedies like the Sandy Hook massacre to bring mental health issues to the forefront of national consciousness, Berkeley residents have long been aware of the shortcomings of the state’s mental health services. Mentally ill people, often homeless and with evident urgent medical problems, are fixtures of Telegraph Avenue and Constitution Square, with public assistance eerily absent. And the gruesome killing two years ago of Berkeley resident Peter Cukor, for which Daniel Dewitt, who had a criminal record yet refused treatment for his mental illness was charged before being found unable to stand trial, remains fresh in many Berkeleyans’ memories.
Laura’s Law, a 2002 California state law the Alameda County Board of Supervisors will vote upon whether to adopt at Tuesday’s meeting, would allow court-ordered outpatient care for people with a history hospitalization, incarceration or dangerous behavior due to mental illness. The law, which initially would be adopted as a test program for five patients, represents an opportunity to improve the county’s substandard mental health services while ensuring mentally ill people’s dignity and residents’ safety.
If fully adopted in Alameda County, Laura’s Law will be an effective means of getting treatment to some of the county’s most vulnerable and neglected citizens. While it is an incomplete solution because it does not provide complete and consistent care, state services for the mentally ill — who make up a large percentage of the city’s homeless — are currently so lacking that the law still represents an improvement to the status quo.
Laura’s Law is a beneficial intermediary to the much more detrimental rights-stripping institutionalization — California’s 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold code — that mentally ill people might otherwise face. And it has sufficient benchmarks that must be met before a court order is issued, like a violent record or prior hospitalizations, to ensure that the law doesn’t encroach on the civil liberties of those who don’t need its treatment. Notably, Candy Dewitt, the mother of Daniel Dewitt, who was charged in Cukor’s killing, is one of the biggest advocates of the adoption of Laura’s Law and calls it a “compassionate” law. She said her son refused treatment because he didn’t know he was sick.
The law’s court-ordered outpatient treatment is far less forcible than 5150. Assisted outpatient treatment programs like Laura’s Law do not physically restrain individuals or force feed them medication. Patients are able to walk away, though they would then subject themselves to the possibility of institutionalization. But Laura’s Law provides mentally ill people an opportunity to avoid institutionalization and strikes the right balance between safety and humane treatment.
Given the prevalence of mentally ill homeless people in Berkeley, Alameda County’s adoption of Laura’s Law will have a significant positive impact on many people. But a more complete solution is ultimately necessary.