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A Tiny, and Huge, Change

June 26, 2002

In his dozen years as a deputy with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Matthew Reale has encountered people dwelling on the street who are wildly delusional, utterly wretched and clearly unable to make decisions that could lead to a healthier life. And, like these people's frustrated families, Reale has been powerless to help because of California's rigidly restrictive 5150 standard--named for a section of the Welfare and Institutions Code that says people can be compelled to get treatment only when they are in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.

Last week, at a hearing for AB 1421, the 32-year-old deputy joined families of people with severe mental illness who had hurt themselves or others.

The bill, by Assemblywoman Helen Thomson (D-Davis), would lower the standard of involuntary treatment to what insiders dub "5149 and a half."

Thomson's legislation is called "Laura's law," after a 19-year-old high school valedictorian killed in Northern California by a man whose mental illness went untreated. Under it, a judge, after consulting with a severely mentally ill person, his legal representative, family members and mental health professionals, could order outpatient treatment if that person would otherwise be at risk of "substantial deterioration." Law officers like Reale could send the sick person to a hospital or clinic.

Reale says the ever-so-slight lowering of the standard would "help 20 severely mentally ill people I know who are living on the streets right now."

AB 1421 passed the Senate Health Committee last Wednesday in a 7-0 vote, but only after civil libertarians persuaded the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), to tack on a bevy of amendments. The Senate Judiciary Committee will probably consider the bill next week.

Most of the amendments are sensible attempts to strengthen the legislation's already strong protections of the rights of people with mental illness.

The amendments would, for example, require public defenders to be present at any commitment hearing and require county mental health directors to review each petition to ensure that severely mentally ill people aren't sent to court frivolously.

We urge Assemblywoman Thomson to compromise and accept six of the seven proposed add-ons.

She, Ortiz and the Judiciary Committee, however, should reject the remaining amendment: rigid ideologues' brazen attempt to nullify the bill by restricting eligibility for the new program to people who meet California's current 5150 standard.

Like others who are fed up with the deplorable status quo that allows mentally ill people to live and die on America's streets, Reale says the peculiar amendment befuddles him. "We already have a system for 5150--hospitalization and jail," he says. "We need something for people before they get to that [condition] so they can receive treatment in the community."

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