County votes to delay consideration of controversial mental health law

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The Alameda County Board of Supervisors delayed the consideration of a one-year pilot program that would permit court-ordered outpatient treatment for individuals with serious mental illness at its Feb. 25 meeting.

The pilot program would operate under Laura’s Law, a statewide law implemented by county discretion. In a 3-1 vote with one supervisor abstaining, the board deferred considering the program by 90 days, within which they hope to reach a compromise.

Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, who supports Laura’s Law and voted against delaying the program’s consideration, said that despite misconceptions about the controversial legislation, she thinks many would be helped by the outpatient treatment — which isn’t too different from current state services.

“We’d be putting individuals in the same system of care that other outpatient people have,” Chan said. “It’s not like we’re setting up a whole different treatment.”

According to section 5150 of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code, an officer has the ability to confine an individual who is gravely disabled due to mental illness and deemed dangerous to psychiatric care. The section is meant solely to provide emergency inpatient care, and under it, individuals can be held for a maximum of 72 hours.

In contrast to this legislation, Laura’s Law is a long-term commitment that allows an outside source to refer an individual who meets criteria outlines to the county or courts for psychiatric treatment.

“(The section functions as) a revolving door where people come in and out — it happens over and over again,” said Candy DeWitt, a supporter of Laura’s Law whose son, Daniel DeWitt, was charged with the murder of Berkeley resident Eric Cukor two years ago. Daniel DeWitt had a history of mental illness and was later ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.

However, critics of the program primarily argue that the implementation of Laura’s Law in the county would have been too hasty, as there was no consideration of other models.

Josh Thurman, deputy chief of staff for Supervisor Scott Haggerty — who voted to delay consideration — said he would like to see a compromise that includes mental health officials, family members, consumers and patients’ rights advocates. He added that part of the issue is the stigma associated with Laura’s Law.

“Honestly, take out (the name) ‘Laura’s Law,’ and take out the numbers and letters and erase memories,” Thurman said. “As soon as you say ‘Laura’s Law,’ the line is drawn automatically.”

Although the meeting last week may have come as a blow for those in support of Laura’s Law, Supervisor Richard Valle sees the division as a challenge.

“I think the crux of the meeting was to start a conversation,” Valle said. “We’re all coming from the point of view that we want to do something, and the outcome will be suitable to all stakeholders.”

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @zoekleinfeld.