A pioneer of creating a court for the mentally ill in Texas laid out steps for Baton Rouge's health, criminal justice and government leaders to do the same and to make better use of courts ordering treatment for the mentally ill.

Oscar Kazen, a former Bexar County judge in San Antonio,  spoke to a group of 40 Thursday evening at the 19th Judicial District Courthouse. He explained how a little-known 2008 Louisiana law gives the state the ability to emulate the model from its neighbor in Texas. The program known as Assisted Outpatient Treatment allows judges to order the mentally ill to treatment and rehabilitation programs rather than jail time. He said the program treats people humanely while saving both money and space in hospitals and jails.

Concerns about the mentally ill in Baton Rouge have been a frequent conversation in recent years, after the closure of the state-run LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center left the area with a lack of emergency mental health services. The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is so overcrowded that City Hall pays to send some inmates to other parish jails, and law enforcement representatives have repeatedly said that a large number of mentally ill inmates is contributing to prison overcrowding.

A push last year for a property tax to fund a mental health stabilization center in Baton Rouge failed at the polls.

But Kazen said complaining about a lack of funding will not cure the crisis in Baton Rouge and that judges, hospital leaders and mental health providers have the ability to make Assisted Outpatient Treatment a frequent reality for the mentally ill in the Capital City.

Kazen also said people often wrongly perceive the mentally ill as incapable of following a court order. But he described the "black robe" effect, saying people take it seriously when a judge orders them to take their medicine or to continue mental health treatment. 

"No matter how ill an individual is, they have the capacity to listen to an authority," Kazen said. "Just because you're mentally ill doesn't make you stupid. Period."

Even for those who do not comply with their prescribed treatment, Kazen said, it's better to have them "on the radar" with the ability to compel them to come to court.

Louisiana passed a law in 2008 that allows judges to order assisted outpatient treatment. But it has rarely been used, and several people in the group Thursday debated why so few people know about it.

Social worker John Nosacka with Capital Area Human Services said he remembered celebrating when the law was passed, thinking it would help many people.

"The law passed and we waited, and we waited, and we heard nothing," Nosacka said.

"The law's not broken," said Joseph Seyler, the director of the state's Mental Health Advocacy Service. "The law has not been used."

Jefferson Parish resident Debi Davies told the group she was one of the first people to take advantage of the Louisiana law in 2013.

Davies said her son, now 25, had a mental breakdown when he was a senior in high school. He spent several months cycling in and out of hospitals, seeing different doctors who put him on different treatment regimens each time, she said. Because he was an adult, Davies said, she could not talk to his doctors because of health care privacy laws.

She hired an attorney and a private doctor to testify — an expensive and lengthy process — and eventually had her son court-ordered to take a monthly injection. She said he has had no hospital stays in four years, he now has a full-time job and a group of friends, and he has said he never wants to stop taking his medicine.

But Davies said other families do not know about the law, and she had to stumble upon it herself.

Kazen tried to rally "the generals" — judges, hospital leaders, public policy makers and others — to take the first steps to figure out how to make Assisted Outpatient Treatment an answer in Louisiana.

"How do you eat an elephant?" he said. "One bite at a time. It doesn't matter if it's a Texas elephant or Louisiana elephant, it's the same damn elephant."

Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​