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HELPING PEOPLE OFF THE STREETS

Last Boost on 'Laura's Law'

June 12, 2002

A part of the democratic process that tends to make idealists blanch will unfold this afternoon in Sacramento. Eleven members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will make a key decision for the whole state: send an important bill to protect the public and people with severe mental illness to the full Senate, or cave in to influential lobbyists and hope that constituents don't notice that the bill has been killed.

To its credit, the committee has set aside two hours to hear from proponents of AB 1421, a bill by Assemblywoman Helen Thomson (D-Davis). The bill would let counties start programs wherein a judge--after consulting with a severely mentally ill patient, his legal representative, family members and mental health professionals--could compel the patient to accept outpatient treatment, including counseling and medication.

Among those testifying will be Nick and Amanda Wilcox. Quakers, who believe above all in nonviolence and respect toward others, the Wilcoxes came to see the need for involuntary treatment after their 19-year-old daughter, Laura, was shot to death by a man whose psychosis had essentially been ignored. After Nick Wilcox's testimony for the bill last year, legislators renamed it "Laura's law."

Committee members also will hear Duke University psychiatrist Marvin S. Swartz describe his studies for the National Institute of Mental Health. Swartz's work shows that the sort of court-ordered treatment programs Laura's law would permit, far from confining people to oppressive hospitals, actually cut hospital admissions by more than half, reduce the number of people living on streets and in parks and help seriously mentally ill people stay on new medications.

A year ago, the Assembly passed the bill 65 to 1. Rightly worried that the full Senate, in much broader public view, also will embrace the bill, civil libertarians have fought fiercely to kill it in the committee.

In fact, since its introduction more than two years ago, AB 1421 has been amended numerous times to provide comprehensive civil rights protections.

We hold individual liberties, including those of the mentally ill, in sacred regard. And we have repeatedly endorsed this long-overdue legislation. The public's elected representatives in the full Senate deserve the right to weigh in on Laura's law.

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To take action: Call the senators on the committee who will vote on the bill today: (all in the 916 area code): Jim Battin (R-La Quinta, 445-5581); Wes Chesboro (D-Arcata, 445-3375); Martha Escutia (D-Whittier, 327-8315); Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont, 445-6671); Ray Haynes (R-Riverside, 445-9781); Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica, 445-1353); Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside, 445-3731); Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento, 445-7807); Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles, 445-3456); Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles, 445-1418); John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara, 445-9740).

To read other Times editorials on this subject, go to: www.latimes.com/news/opinion and click on "Helping People Off the Streets."

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