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California’s controversial new mental health law catching Washington’s attention

SEATTLE -- As Washington struggles with prolific offenders, some leaders are eyeing California after the state passed a new law this week that could force some people off the streets and into housing or treatment programs.

It's called conservatorship and it basically strips someone from being able to make their own decisions. The controversial new law has civil liberties implications by putting the state in charge of adults' lives.

The pilot program is taking place in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. It applies to people who have been placed on psychiatric hold eight or more times in a year.

"As the California program gets off the ground, it will certainly be worth evaluating its outcomes," Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes told Q13 News in a statement. "Investment in our region's mental health system, including both voluntary and involuntary treatment, is essential for the well-being of everyone, especially those who suffer this traumatic illness."

In Washington, where drug abuse and mental health is so clearly visible on community streets, the law demands a high threshold to get people the help they may need when they don't want it.

The state law allows involuntary commitment when someone poses an imminent risk to themselves, someone else or someone else's property. They could also qualify if they fall under grave disability, where the level of impairment is so high they cannot take care of their own basic needs, including food, shelter or water.

After proving imminent danger, initial holds are only allowed up to 72 hours. After that, medical professionals can petition the court for up to 14 additional days of involuntary detention and treatment. They can continue petitions for 90 or 180 days in more critical cases.

"Our involuntary-commitment threshold is very high, it's one of the highest in the nation," said State Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline. "I would argue that, yes, it is too high. We have individuals who are in desperate need of care who at their point of crisis, the only liberties that they retain are the liberties of their delusions of the liberties of their methamphetamine-induced psychosis, and that it is rather inhumane to do nothing."

Before Davis pushed for what is now known as Ricky's Law, only people with mental health issues could be involuntarily committed in Washington. The rule did not apply to people with substance abuse, like Davis' best friend Ricky, for whom she was the primary caregiver.

"He ended up repeatedly in the emergency department and in the psychiatric hospital, in the intensive care unit after he nearly died," Davis said. "He was not able to get the help he needed. He was not willing or able at that time to consent to voluntary substance use disorder treatment and yet he was dying of substance use disorder at age 24."

He eventually got the treatment he needed and is reportedly sober, but the experience pushed Davis, a private citizen at the time, to fight to expand involuntary commitment to others struggling with substance abuse.

Davis said there is still a lack of resources and that the state's treatment approach is too reactionary. Meanwhile, in Seattle and King County, leaders have crafted new proposals to deal with the growing mental health and prolific offender crisis.

Involuntary treatment cases are also growing. A recent report out of King County showed that from 2014 to 2017, the number of cases increased by more than 20 percent. In addition, more than half of the people involved in involuntary treatment cases in 2017 had prior cases. Seven percent had been in the system at least 10 times.

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