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On January 10, 2001 in Nevada City, a mentally ill man arrived at the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department and told Laura Wilcox, who was working as a volunteer receptionist, that he wished to see his psychiatrist. When he was unable to see his psychiatrist, he shot several people in the building, leaving three people dead, including Laura.

In an effort to prevent tragedies like this, legislation was enacted, called Laura’s Law, providing an option for treatment of people who are seen as potentially dangerous and are seriously mentally ill.  Yet, the mentally ill continue to enter our courts and jails at an alarming rate.

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Defendants deemed either incompetent to stand trial or insane at the time the crime was committed contribute to a list of 600 people waiting for admittance to one of 6 mental health hospitals in California.  Our Superior Court judges in the county determine the mental health of defendants in the courtroom.  Laws defining Competency and Insanity in addition to expert witnesses from the mental health field, guide legal judgment.

The first job of the court is to determine that defendants are able to understand the nature of the charges against them and that they can assist their lawyer in their defense, which is defined as Competent in California Penal Code Section 1368. When competence is in doubt, a psychiatrist or psychologist is appointed to further aid the determination.   Both the lawyers and the judge can question Competence of a person who is on trial.  Court proceedings are stopped when a defendant is determined not Competent and that defendant is held in jail waiting for admittance to a mental hospital.  New evidence must be presented to the court proving competence to allow court proceedings to restart.    

Another way the mentally ill enter our jails is by being considered Insane at the time the crime was committed.  As defined in California Penal Code Section 1026, Insane defendants are considered to be incapable of understanding the nature of the crime that was committed and unable to distinguish between right and wrong at the time the crime was committed. 

It is possible for a person to continue through a trial as a Competent defendant and yet be Insane at the time of the crime, and vice versa.  Any combination of these two mental health determinations not only places great strain on a court and jail system already reeling from overcrowding and escalating costs, but also does a great disservice to the mentally ill and the safety of our community.

Recently enacted Laura’s Law (California Welfare and Institutions Code section 5345) intends to reduce the number of mentally ill people entering courts, prisons and jails. People who are not necessarily in trouble with the law but have friends or family who think that there is a risk they could be dangerous can be identified and receive mental health treatment. 

Nevada County estimates that during the first two and a half years of the implementation of Laura’s Law it realized savings of more than $500,000 by avoiding hospitalizations and incarcerations. To date Nevada County is the only county that has fully implemented the law.

Hopefully other local governments will adopt this law to prevent the consequences of mental health problems that otherwise are dealt with in our courts and jails.

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