The San Francisco Chronicle
May 1, 2002
"Carefully crafted, AB1421 ... strikes a delicate balance between an individual's right to complete freedom and society's responsibility to protect its members from violence or death."
DURING A COLLEGE break, 19-year-old Laura Wilcox decided to work at Nevada City's only public mental health clinic. Valedictorian of her high school class, Wilcox was running for president of the student body at prestigious Haverford College and had just finalized plans to work with a Quaker group after her graduation.
Meanwhile, 41-year-old Scott Harlan Thorpe was growing increasingly enraged because he was convinced that the FBI had ordered people to poison his food and had forced him to see an incompetent psychiatrist. Thorpe's family helplessly watched his rapid descent into delusional paranoia, but couldn't persuade him to accept treatment and take medication. On Jan. 10, 2001, the paths of these two people crossed, with tragic consequences. Thorpe walked into the clinic where Wilcox worked and opened fire. He killed two clinic employees, including Wilcox. Still in a rage, he then drove to a restaurant where he aimed his gun at and killed its 24-year-old manager.
To highlight the unnecessary tragedy of Laura Wilcox's death, AB1421 -- legislation pending before the state Senate's Health and Human Services Committee -- has been named "Laura's Law."
Thorpe suffered from severe and persistent mental illness, but neither his family nor the state had a legal right to force him to take medication. In the end, a judge found him mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Ever since she entered the state Legislature, Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, has worked tirelessly to reform the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short law -- well-intentioned but misguided legislation that makes it practically impossible for judges or physicians to compel a mentally ill person to accept treatment and medication. The result of that law, which veered too far on the side of protecting an individual's rights, is that anyone who is suicidal or homicidal can be helped only through repeated arrests or short hospital stays.
AB1421 is meant to reform the law by allowing court-ordered outpatient treatment for people who refuse medical treatment -- or are unaware they need it. Instead of being sent to a mental hospital, a severely mentally ill person would be given the alternative of accepting outpatient treatment and medication.
Some people worry that such a reform would grant the state too much power and might result in the abuse of mental patients. But AB1421 guarantees due process rights; no involuntary medication can be compelled unless family members and mental health professionals are first consulted.
Carefully crafted, AB1421 -- based on New York's "Kendra's Law" -- strikes a delicate balance between an individual's right to complete freedom and society's responsibility to protect its members from violence or death.
We also know it works. A study by Duke University, evidence gained from New York's experience, and proposals from a Rand study all suggest that such laws not only prevent costly revolving door hospitalizations and incarcerations, but also deliver the best and most effective treatment available.
Last year, the Assembly passed legislation to reform existing law by a 65-1 vote. Now it must receive the approval of the state Senate as well as the signature of the governor. We urge Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, as well as all of its members, to pass this vital legislation. No, it won't solve all our problems, but it may very well prevent some horrifying tragedies.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2002 The San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.