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Newsom wants courts to play new role in treating mental health and homelessness crises

Counties that refuse to administer the new "Care Courts" or provide treatment to residents will face court sanctions, if the plan is approved by the Legislature.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California judges could compel people suffering from illnesses like schizophrenia to accept medical treatment under a comprehensive new mental health and homelessness plan announced Thursday by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Dismayed by the state’s ongoing failure to get people off city streets and into treatment or housing, the Newsom administration wants civil courts to play a more direct role through a new mental-health extension called “Care Court." Officials estimate the plan, which counties would be required to administer under the threat of court sanctions, could bring complete care to over 10,000 desperate residents.

From a treatment center in Santa Clara County, Newsom cast the state’s current approach to tackling mental health and homelessness as outdated and wasteful.

“We’re as dumb as we want to be, spending exponentially more with no real results,” said the Democratic governor. “This is a completely different approach.”

In recent decades, California lawmakers and voters have approved billions of dollars toward fighting homelessness, yet the issue continues to plague the nation’s most populous state.

Despite the influx of money — including $12 billion included in the current state budget — the amount of people experiencing homelessness in the Golden State continues to grow. According to the most recent federal data, California’s homeless population grew nearly 7% to 161,000 between 2019-2020, far outpacing the next state — New York, with 91,000.

The additional resources haven’t produced much success, so in an election year Newsom is turning to the courts to spur results.  

Under the developing plan that will require legislative approval, parents, first responders and doctors would be authorized to refer someone to the new mental-health judicial arm. California Health & Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly says the details are still being worked out, but that primarily people with verified psychotic disorders would be eligible for referral.

Once referred to the court, an individual would be assigned a public defender and then judges in coordination with mental health professionals would determine whether a treatment plan is necessary. If a plan is ordered, the individual would be required to accept treatment administered by the county or local government. Counties declining to provide care would face court-ordered fines while individuals who refuse help would be referred to their previous situation, such as a criminal court, a hospital or conservatorship.

Officials say the idea is to get treatment to desperate people before they end up on the street, the emergency room or jail.

“We walk our neighborhoods and we see encampments larger than they’ve ever been, we see people who are clearly in crisis on the streets,” said Jason Elliott, senior adviser to Newsom. “Something different needs to happen.”

Elliott says existing state programs created to compel treatment for seriously mentally ill residents such as Laura’s Law, short-term involuntary psychiatric holds or judge-appointed conservatorships, are no longer having the desired effect.

During a press briefing, Elliott acknowledged more state funding would be required to implement the plan across California’s 58 superior courts. He said talks are underway with the Judicial Council of California and that an official legislative bill could be introduced and passed this year.

California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye applauded Newsom's latest effort to reduce homelessness and mental health issues in a statement.

"These are issues we deal with constantly in the judicial branch and we look forward to working with the administration and the Legislature in the coming months as the program is further developed," she said.

Other jurists are already on board with the plan, including Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley. He says judges are unduly bound by outdated statutes when handling criminal cases involving people with mental illness and that Newsom’s plan will allow the courts more flexibility.

“We need to stop trying to fix a failed system that is rapidly, in my view, moving us back to where we were 100 years ago,” Manley said.

Newsom argued the plan isn’t a return to institutionalization and large-scale involuntary treatments, noting that Care Court plans could only last up to two years and won’t call for medications to be forcibly given. He says talks will continue with mental health advocates and disability rights groups on the sweeping plan which he hopes will be folded into the upcoming budget negotiations.

“We’re putting everything we can into this, we recognize what you see every single day and it’s unacceptable,” said Newsom.

 

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