Continuing my discussion on mental illness and the criminal justice system, I now turn to a little-known California law that was enacted in 2002, known as Laura’s Law. This legislation, codified in the California Welfare and Institutions Code, sections 5345 et seq., permits the court to order certain persons to obtain assisted outpatient mental health treatment.  Directed at seriously mentally ill adults who have previously been treated in a mental health unit of a correctional facility or have a history of one or more acts of violence towards self or others, this law permits the county mental health department to file a petition to the court requesting the subject individual be ordered to treatment. A request to the mental health department to file the petition may be made by the subject individual’s parent, sibling, or spouse, or by a person who resides with the subject individual.  The request can also be made by treatment centers, hospitals, or other care agencies who are providing care to the subject individual or by a peace, parole, or probation officer.   Extensive due process requirements are written into the law; the court must carefully consider defined criteria before ordering an individual to treatment.

For my clients who are struggling with a mentally ill adult child or sibling who is caught in a seemingly endless revolving doorin the criminal justice system, this statute could provide relief.  The provisions of Laura’s Law leave implementation of the statute to each individual county and has been adopted by Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego counties. In fact, Orange County was the first large county in California to adopt the law.

Laura’s Law is not the same as what is known as a 5150 hold, where a person can be involuntarily committed to psychiatric facility for up to 72 hours for an assessment and possibly 14 additional days for treatment. (Welfare and Institutions Code sections 5150 and 5250.) Laura’s Law does not commit a person to a facility; rather, it is an order for outpatient treatment. Unlike 5150/5250 holds, which mandates the release of the mentally ill individual from treatment whether he or she has shown any improvement after the statutory period, Laura’s Law mandates sustained and intensive treatment until a mental health professional deems the individual well enough to maintain treatment on their own.

Laura’s Law, and similar laws in other states, has been shown to be effective. In the first California county to implement the law, Nevada county, there has been a substantial reduction in incarceration and homelessness among the severely mentally ill.

Laura’s Law is targeted at those individuals who suffer from mental illness but lack an awareness of their condition. Individuals with schizophrenia and severe bi-polar disorder often refuse to take their medications because they believe nothing is wrong with them. And it is often the parents of these individuals that come to my office at their wit’s end. Their adult child refuses to take his or her medication, is arrested, jailed, and released on an on-going basis, often for petty offenses. But sometimes the offenses can be serious. Indeed, Laura’s Law is named after Laura Wilcox, a young volunteer at a California mental health clinic who was fatally shot by a mentally ill man who resisted his attempts by his family and social agencies to have him hospitalized and treated. His condition worsened and ultimately, he shot Laura and two other people at the clinic.

While Laura’s Law is available only to individuals that fit certain criteria, this, along with other alternativesto the incarceration cycle of mentally ill offenders address the increasingly evident knowledge that many offenders have a mental illness and require treatment, not punishment.

If you have a family member who suffers from mental illness and has been in and out of the justice system, Laura’s Law may offer hope. Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg would be happy to discuss your options. You may contact him for a free consultation by calling his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at