IN 1967 Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, signed into law the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, an ambitious reform of the state’s mental-health laws. It was part of a wave of changes that closed asylums in the state and around the country. Half a century later, the state legislature is reviewing those decisions.

In February Scott Wiener, a state senator who represents San Francisco, introduced Senate Bill 1045. The bill aims to make it easier for his home city, as well as Los Angeles, to oblige chronically homeless people who suffer from mental illness or addiction to accept the appointment by a judge of a person or institution to look after them (a concept called “conservatorship”). London Breed, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, has backed the proposal.

The bill would affect between 40 and 60 homeless people in San Francisco, reckons Barbara Garcia of the city’s Public Health Department. That is less than 1% of its official homeless population. Along with a number of similar bills aimed at loosening the legislation of 1967—including two that would expand the “gravely disabled” standard for involuntary treatment—it represents a shift in ideas about how to care for addicted or mentally ill homeless people. But it raises the knotty problem of balancing an individual’s mental health against their civil liberties.

Current law in California allows authorities to confine those who are gravely disabled or present a danger to themselves for, at first, 72 hours, then an additional 14 days and then a further 30 days. But if patients show a minimal degree of competence—finding food and clothing, for example—at the end of any of those periods, they must be released. Many relapse, and some end up in the arms of the law. “Mentally ill people are still being institutionalised,” says Dominic Sisti of the University of Pennsylvania and the lead author of a paper arguing for the return of asylums. “They are just in jails.”

The fate of the bill may eventually be determined by public opinion. California’s homeless population has become both more visible and, with the presence of drugs like fentanyl, more violently unpredictable. That may be moving legislators to embrace what Mr Sisti terms a “parentalist” mode of care: Mr Wiener’s bill passed its first three committees by 6-1, 7-0 and 5-2 votes.