by TJ Johnston

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]aura’s Law is now a reality in San Francisco. On a 9-2 vote, the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance implementing Laura’s Law, also known as AB 1421, on July 8, 2014.
Laura’s Law enables a family member or another person living with someone to start legal proceedings for involuntary psychiatric commitment. Previously, only mental health providers or law enforcement officers could initiate the process. Proponents claim the law would reduce hospitalization and incarcerations rates of mentally ill people.
In passing the ordinance, authored by Supervisor Mark Farrell, San Francisco avoided a similar initiative from making the November ballot — as well as what some, including Supervisor David Campos, fear would become a divisive campaign that demonizes mentally ill and homeless people.
“I have been consistently clear that I have concerns about the mandatory treatment that is embedded in the legislation,” Campos said. “I don’t think involuntary treatment is the answer.”
Neither does Anna Krieger, civil rights litigation fellow of Disability Rights California. She said the city could better reduce its numbers on homelessness by providing supportive housing and access to voluntary mental health services. She added that city officials haven’t provided a funding plan for the law’s implementation. She said she is also afraid of inherent cultural biases that would disproportionately affect minorities.
“African Americans were five times more likely than Caucasians to be subject to a court order for treatment, and Latinos were twice as likely,” she said citing a state report of a similar law in New York.
Before casting his “no” vote, Eric Mar said promises of security to residents won’t be realized and that people with mental health disabilities would continue to be maligned. “I really feel that if we move forward without full and adequate funding of our mental health system, this may be leading to a false hope of safety in our neighborhoods,” he said. “And I worry that there’s a danger of further stigmatizing people with mental illness.”
The state law, which passed in 2002, allows counties to decide when to put it into effect. Previous attempts at the San Francisco board to legislate it have failed.
But this time, supervisors agreed to carry out the law after including two amendments. One, by Campos, requires involvement from a Care Team with Department of Public Health and peer outreach workers, and the other, from Jane Kim, mandates an outside agency’s evaluation of the law after three years, which is also the sunset date of the state legislation.


Shadows on the wall. A dance of liberation from dehumanization in locked psychiatric wards. Art by Tanya Temkin
Shadows on the wall. A dance of liberation from dehumanization in locked psychiatric wards. Art by Tanya Temkin

While officials from the San Francisco police, fire and public health departments, as well as Mayor Ed Lee’s office, spoke in favor of the law at committee and full board meetings, opponents showed in numbers. They were advocates for mental health clients and low-income people, and most were clad in lime-green T-shirts that read, “Force is the opposite of treatment. Demand dignity now.” They noted that clients would have no say once a court orders them into treatment.
“Almost by definition,” said Julian Plumadore, community advocate of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, “it’s people without mental health challenges making life or death decisions for people with them.”
Such mandatory treatment doesn’t work as well as supporters promise, said Eduardo Vega, director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, at a June 23 committee meeting.
“A court order has never been shown to have a positive effect” on consumers, he told the panel. Studies from New York City, the California State Senate and the Rand Corporation bear out that there was no difference in outcomes between those who underwent court-ordered treatment and those who entered voluntarily.
The ordinance is scheduled to take effect in August. San Francisco will follow Nevada and Orange counties in implementing Laura’s Law.