‘Laura’s Law’ could have prevented a death in Paso Robles

The murder of 61-year-old Earlene Grove by her mentally ill daughter Sunni Jackson, in Paso Robles most likely wouldn’t have happened if the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors had implemented Laura’s Law.

Laura’s Law allows courts to order certain individuals with serious mental illness – like Sunni, those who have a history of non-compliance with psychiatric treatmen and a history of violence – to stay in treatment as a condition of living in the community. They get full due process and the right to help develop their own treatment plan.

Laura’s Law helps patients and keeps the public and police safer. When Nevada County implemented Laura’s Law it found it reduced incarceration of people with mental illness by 65 percent. It reduced hospitalization, 46 percent; cut homelessness 61 percent, and emergency contacts 44 percent. That’s why it is supported by organizations as diverse as the California State Sheriff’s Association, California Psychiatric Association, and San Luis Obispo Alliance on Mental Illness.

The supervisors can’t claim they didn’t know Laura’s Law saves lives. In 2010, when mentally ill Cliff Detty died in restraints at a mental health facility that he wouldn’t have been in had he received community treatment, his father told reporters Laura’s Law would have saved his life. Op-eds by experts said the same thing.

In 2011, after mentally ill Andrew Downs was committed to a hospital for the Christmas Day shooting of two women, Diane O’Neil, the past president of a local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter  wrote an op-ed on behalf of parents of the mentally ill explaining how Laura’s Law would have prevented the tragedy. It goes on and on. The supervisors don’t have to wait for the next death to act. But they probably will.

The supervisors can’t claim there is no money to implement it for two reasons. First, Laura’s Law saves money. Nevada County found it saved $1.81 to $2.52 for every dollar invested. Los Angeles County estimated it saved taxpayers 40 percent for the care of each person enrolled. The savings come from reduced hospitalization, arrest, trial and incarcerations.

The second reason is that San Luis Obispo County receives well over $2 million annually in Proposition 63/Mental Health Service Act proceeds they are supposed to use to help the most seriously ill get treatment. But rather than use it provide services to people with serious mental illness and implement Laura’s Law, the Mental Health Services Agency used a chunk of it to fund a documentary on “stigma” to put on a website and then congratulated themselves for doing it.

Is that why Californians voted to tax themselves with Proposition 63? They didn’t feel there were enough documentaries on websites? And think about it. Will a documentary on a website saying there should be no stigma ever be enough to overcome the stigma caused this past week by letting mentally ill Sunni Jackson go untreated and ultimately commit matricide?

As the Surgeon General’s report on mental illness pointed out, it is fear of violence by people with untreated serious mental illness that causes stigma. If San Luis Obispo wants to reduce stigma, implement Laura’s Law.

What the supervisors will most likely claim is that a recommendation didn’t come from the mental health department. They don’t have to wait for one. They can lead. Few mental health departments want to implement programs that require them to focus on the most seriously mentally ill as opposed to the worried well. Don’t wait. Act.

The county Mental Health Services Agency may tell the Supervisors that MHSA proceeds can’t be used for Laura’s Law, echoing opponents of the law. But as California mental health advocate Mary Ann Bernard notes, the now extinct State Department of Mental Health issued a regulation saying they can. As Carla Jacobs of the California Treatment Advocacy Coalition points out, “Nevada County uses their MHSA funds for Laura’s Law. Los Angeles County uses their MHSA funds for Laura’s Law. Why can’t San Luis Obispo County?”

Ed. Note: DJ Jaffe is the executive director of Mental Illness Policy.

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