Newsom’s CARE Court proposal nears passage, controversy continues over ‘mandatory commitment’ of program

With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE Court proposal currently placed on the legislative suspense file, conversations surrounding the bill remain contentious. 

 

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Senate Bill 1338, introduced by Sens. Tom Umberg (D–Santa Ana) and Susan Talamantes Eggman (D–Stockton), would establish the CARE Court Program to provide treatment, housing, and support services to Californians with complex behavioral health needs. The program connects individuals with court-ordered care plans that last up to 12 months and can be extended for an additional 12 months.

This program focuses on individuals on the schizophrenia spectrum or other psychotic disorders who meet specific criteria—or individuals with what the court determines is a “severe” mental illness.

According to the program’s information page on the California Health and Human Services Agency’s website, the program provides individuals with appropriate and community-based services and supports, including short-term stabilization medications, wellness and recovery supports, and connection to social services such as housing. Individuals are referred to the program with a petition to the Court from care providers, family members, first responders, or other types of specified individuals.

After being referred and evaluated to determine that they meet the criteria for the CARE program, the individual is then required to comply with the court order and engage with all court proceedings as part of the program. 

“CARE Court is an upstream diversion to prevent more restrictive conservatorships or incarceration; this is based on evidence which demonstrates that many people can stabilize, begin healing, and exit homelessness in less restrictive, community-based care settings,” the website reads. “With advances in treatment models, new longer acting antipsychotic treatments, and the right clinical team and housing, individuals who have historically suffered tremendously on the streets or during avoidable incarceration can be successfully stabilized and supported in the community.”

Many civil rights organizations, including ACLU of California and ACLU California Action, have come out in opposition to the bill. Kevin Baker, Director of Governmental Relations at ACLU California Action, says the proposal takes the wrong approach to addressing mental illness and substance use disorders in unhoused Californians. 

“I don’t know of any policy expert that believes the way to fund and deliver health care services is by simply giving a bunch of new money to the courts and nothing for the providers … If you’re going to really successfully treat people, it probably should be voluntary as opposed to coerced,” Baker said. 

“This is a process, as I understand it, by which [police officers] can go to the court and [order an unhoused individual with a severe psychiatric condition] to participate in this court process where they will be ordered to do certain things whether or not they’re seeking them. And yet, there is no provision in this proposal to actually provide them with the services and housing.”

Baker added that notifying unhoused individuals who live on the street of court orders could become difficult, and that the proposal only funds courts and not provider workforces who will actually be treating the increased demand as a result of the program.

He said he believes the program would be more conducive to success if individuals who wanted the services for themselves were the ones to initiate the process, as opposed to the courts and law enforcement in an involuntary treatment framework.

Supporters of the bill include the California Hospital Association and the California Chamber of Commerce. Loren Kaye, President of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, told State of Reform that he believes the compulsory aspect of the program will be ultimately beneficial for these individuals. 

“Homelessness, especially among individuals that are severely mentally ill or addicted, is just a tragedy, and it’s just something that should not be happening to the extent it is in California,” Kaye said. “My impression is that this not only identifies individuals and services that can benefit them, but a judge will, in effect, commit an individual to this course of treatment.

The fact is that these individuals, according to the administration, are in many cases incapable of making decisions for themselves, or incapable of following through on a program of care. We’re talking about the most severely mentally ill people on the streets, and for these people, it’s just a death sentence for them on the streets. This is a way of addressing it to both make their lives better and make the streets safer.”