CA Psychiatric Commitment Law Overhaul Studied FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 17 Feb 1999 12:25:02 -0800 (PST)

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Would changing laws - to make involuntary psychiatric treatment easier -
help emotionally stressed homeless people?  Why or why not?  See related
article below:
FWD  Los Angeles Times - Wednesday, February 17, 1999


     Legislation: Effort begins to revise law that
     makes involuntary treatment virtually impossible.

     By DAN MORAIN, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO--A legislative committee Tuesday took the first steps toward
changing a 30-year-old state law that makes it all but impossible to force
mentally ill people into treatment unless they commit crimes.

The effort led by Assemblywoman Helen Thomson (D-Davis) stirred the
passions of opponents of forced treatment, as dozens crammed a hearing room
and held a rally outside the Capitol saying that civil liberties are being

But Thomson, a former psychiatric nurse, said she will pursue the
inquiry--and may carry legislation--because she is concerned that thousands
of mentally ill people end up in prison, and that many more are living on
the streets.

"Our system is working backward," Thomson said. "People must go to jail
before they get mental health services. . . . I'm looking for a way to take
the burden off the jails and prisons."

Witnesses representing law enforcement, state prisons, and state and local
mental health experts described a crisis in which 49,000 mentally ill
people are living on the streets in California, too ill to know they need
help. An additional 20,000 to 30,000 are in state prisons.

Sgt. Barry Perrou of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said Los
Angeles law enforcement delivers 12,000 people a year into the county's
psychiatric care system, a seventh of all patients seen by the county
Department of Mental Health.

The Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department combined
receive more than 100,000 emergency calls a year to deal with people having
psychotic episodes. Perrou told of one woman who was committed 56 times in
a 20-month period.

"We need changes to the law that would prevent the [mentally ill person]
from reaching a deadly crisis before reasonable action can be taken,"
Perrou said. "Where the law is now, they have to go up on the bridge or put
the gun in their mouth."

Another witness, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, said the current system of helping
severely mentally people only when they seek it "is outdated, and the
consequences have been and continue to be tragic for California."

Torrey, president of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va.,
estimated that 1,000 homicides are committed nationwide each year by
severely mentally ill people, including 120 in California.

Advocates of a more aggressive approach to mental health treatment say that
the crisis had its beginnings in the late 1960s, when California began
emptying state hospitals but provided little or no care for the patients in
communities where they live.

In 1969, the Legislature approved the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which
limits authorities' ability to detain people unless they are thought to be
a danger to themselves or others. Even then, they can be held against their
will for no more than 72 hours.

Although the state hospitals once housed more than 30,000 patients, the
remaining state hospitals house 911 people who have not committed crimes.
An additional 3,300 are confined to state hospitals because they have
committed crimes.

One of the driving forces behind Tuesday's hearing is the Los Angeles
County affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the
Southern California Psychiatric Society, which issued a report Tuesday
calling for revision of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act.

"No one advocates a return to unnecessary long-term placement," the report
said. "Our dilemma is how to provide treatment to people who do not have
the medical capacity to accept or access it themselves."

The California Research Bureau, part of the state library, also issued a
report timed for Tuesday's hearing. The report estimated that 10% to 15% of
the inmates in local jails and state prisons are mentally ill. Women
offenders are more likely to be mentally ill, with 19% in one study being
diagnosed as having serious mental illness.

The annual law enforcement and prison costs of handling the mentally ill in
California's criminal justice system is as much as $1.8 billion, according
to a report by the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think tank in
San Francisco.

Assemblywoman Thomson's hearing brought a strong reaction from the
California Assn. of Mental Health Patients' Rights Advocates. Members of
the group jammed the hearing room, and testified that there is no need to
change the laws.

Although Torrey and others advocate the use of antipsychotic medication to
control diseases such as schizophrenia and manic depression, critics warned
that the drugs also cause problems.  "The medications cause the brain
disease," Dr. Loren Moshner said.

Thomson, who was skeptical about the claim, asked for any scientific
information to buttress the statement, and noted that if mentally ill
people stop taking medication, they risk breakdowns that land them in


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**

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