The conservatorship debate

Conservatorship laws in California are tangled in a web of philosophical, legal and ethical questions. What is the government’s responsibility to care for people with serious mental illnesses who say they don’t want treatment? How should the right to liberty be balanced against the need for care?

For years, legislators have talked about amending long-standing conservatorship laws. Last year, out of several legislative proposals, only one ended up passing, and it was expected to affect relatively few people.

At the core of this debate is a law signed more than a half-century ago by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act ended the inappropriate and often indefinite institutionalization of people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities, and provided them with legal protections, including limiting involuntary holds to 72 hours.

Those who want to revise it say it can prevent very sick people from getting the help they need. Defenders of current law say people with mental illness need better care and support from society, not intrusions on their civil liberties. If the state wants to help those with serious mental health issues, they say, it should address the housing crisis and struggling community mental health systems.