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LA County speeds up implementation of Gov. Newsom’s new mental health court system

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Los Angeles County will join seven other counties in leading the way to implement Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE Court – a sweeping new plan to use the court system to swiftly connect more people to mental health and substance use treatment.

CARE Court, passed by the California legislature in September 2022, was set to begin its roll out in seven initial counties: Glenn, San Diego, San Francisco, Tuolumne, Stanislaus, Orange and Riverside.

On Friday, Jan. 13, the governor’s office announced that L.A. County will join this initial cohort and implement CARE Court by Dec. 1 – one year ahead of schedule.

“CARE Court brings real progress and accountability at all levels to fix the broken system that is failing too many Californians in crisis,” Newsom said in a statement. “I commend Los Angeles County leaders, the courts and all the local government partners and stakeholders across the state who are taking urgent action to make this life saving initiative a reality for thousands of struggling Californians.”

Mayor Karen Bass and L.A. County supervisors Kathryn Barger, Janice Hahn and Hilda Solis all expressed their support for the accelerated rollout of CARE Court. It is currently unclear whether the Board of Supervisors will need to vote to authorize this decision, however with the support of Barger, Hahn and Solis, such a motion would have a majority vote.

Newsom has pitched CARE Court as a means to empower individuals suffering from untreated schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders to enter treatment programs. In particular, the court is designed to assist unhoused individuals as well as other vulnerable populations who struggle to access and keep up with treatment plans.

“We are in a homelessness emergency and we know that many who are living on our streets are struggling with severe mental illness. Gov. Newsom’s Care Court model has been a missing piece in our effort to bring people inside,” Hahn said in a statement.

Disability rights activists, on the other hand, worry that court compelled treatment will impinge on people’s civil rights and disproportionately affect people of color, who make up the majority of the state’s unhoused population.

The ACLU California Action, Disability Rights California, and Western Center on Law & Poverty were among 40 advocacy groups that submitted letters of opposition to Newsom’s CARE Court Bill in April 2022.

“CARE Court is a coerced, court-ordered treatment system that strips people with mental health disabilities of their right to make their own decisions about their lives,” said Disability Rights California in a statement issued in August, 2022. “It will do more harm because studies show forced treatment lessens the likelihood of people seeking voluntary treatment in the future.”

Mayor Karen Bass, for her part, expressed support for fast-tracking CARE Court in LA County and promised to protect the rights of court clients.

“It is profoundly inhumane to allow people to suffer mental illness and die on our streets,” said Bass. “We will lock arms with Los Angeles County, building CARE Courts and expanding mental health and substance abuse programs to help Angelenos get well while respecting all civil liberties.”

In L.A. County, the Department of Mental Health will oversee and coordinate the implementation of CARE Court. The exact details of how the court will function in practice remain unclear.

Under Newsom’s proposal several different parties – including behavioral health providers, emergency responders and family members – can petition a CARE Court judge to hear the case of an individual experiencing mental illness.

The judge will then come up with a treatment plan. This may include housing resources, substance-use treatment and mental health care, which the County is then required to provide.

In L.A. County, the most populous in the state, providing the necessary housing and mental health services will not be easy.

Nevertheless, Barger sees a benefit in the county being part of the initial rollout of CARE Court.

“It allows us to be on the ground floor of a new program where a lot of processes and implementation details still need to be worked out,” she said in a statement. “Our county needs to have a seat at the table so we can effectively bring healing to individuals living with debilitating mental illness on our streets.”

Resources for CARE Court clients will be funded, in part, through the investments in homelessness and mental health care included in the state’s recently passed 2023-24 budget. This includes $1.5 billion for behavioral bridge housing, more than $11 billion annually for mental health programs and more than $1.4 billion for California’s health and human services workforce.

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