Jennifer Hoff, mother of mentally ill young man now in prison

Jennifer Hoff of Ladera Ranch, whose mentally ill adult son is in prison for bank robbery, believes Laura's Law could have helped him and kept him out of prison. As in most of California, the law has not been implemented in Orange County. The tattoos on Jennifer's arms are her son's booking numbers from various arrests. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / February 26, 2014)

Almost as soon as Matthew Hoff turned 18 and aged out of the mental health programs he'd been enrolled in since childhood, he was out on the streets and in and out of jail.

His parents tried to get him back into treatment for bipolar and other brain disorders he suffers, but the young man wasn't cooperative and he wasn't considered dangerous or gravely disabled. So they stood by helplessly as their son faded from their reach.

Less than a year later, Hoff walked into a Buena Park bank with a robbery note and left with a handful of cash. Now he's serving 15 years in prison, a fate his parents feel could have been prevented with treatment.

"It's like watching your kid drown," said his mother, Jennifer Hoff of Ladera Ranch. "The burden and the blame is on families. But we have no legal authority to do anything."

It's been 12 years since California — under pressure from the families of mentally ill adults — passed Laura's Law to allow court-ordered treatment for people like Matthew Hoff. But it came with a caveat: Each county would have to approve its own program.

So far, only one of the state's 58 counties, tiny Nevada County, has fully implemented the law.

But recent changes in state law and high-profile cases like the beating death of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton have spurred local officials to give Laura's Law a fresh look.

Two of the state's largest counties — Los Angeles and Orange — are preparing plans for implementation. Yolo County adopted a pilot program last year; and other counties, including San Diego and San Francisco, are exploring the option. Last month, after a heated debate, Alameda County delayed voting on a program.

Families and some advocates say Laura's Law could help reduce the large number of mentally ill adults who are incarcerated and avoid tragedies like the death of Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who died after he was beaten by police.

But opponents worry it will only undermine efforts to treat those who suffer from mental illness.

"I can empathize with where family members are coming from, but force is just not the solution," said Charmaine Asher, who suffers from major depression and advocates for the rights of the mentally ill.

In Orange County, Thomas' death led several families of mentally ill adults to aggressively lobby the county to support the law. Currently, mentally ill individuals can be confined against their will for 72 hours and possibly longer, but only if they pose an imminent danger to themselves or others or are gravely disabled.

"It's hard for me to understand that anybody questions the value of it," said Brian Jacobs, whose siblings suffered from schizophrenia. "It's a horrible, horrible illness, and to leave people in psychosis on the streets is unconscionable, but we do it all the time."

County officials initially cited lack of money as a barrier. But a recent state law clarifying that counties can use funds from the Mental Health Services Act for Laura's Law helped clear the way, said Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach.

An implementation plan is now being vetted and should come before supervisors in May. Moorlach, who supports the law, said he was swayed by the experiment in Nevada County, where many patients faced with the prospect of court-imposed treatment eventually agreed to get help.

"There's the black robe effect," he said, referring to the role of a judge in persuading a person to accept treatment. "It hopefully helps [them] understand that people are caring and want to provide the right tools."

Critics say the law dangerously lowers the threshold for taking away a person's most fundamental rights. One group, Disability Rights California, is considering suing Orange County if it implements the law, said Ann Menasche, a staff attorney with the group.

"When we start taking away a person's rights like that, it's a very dangerous slope," she said.

Asher, the Yorba Linda resident who struggles with depression, said the law takes away an important right to self-determination.

"It's my body, my mind and my life," she said. "It doesn't belong to a psychiatrist or mental health judge."