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Criticism Rises as California’s CARE Court Unfolds – And Rightfully So

In September 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom passed CARE Court: a first-in-the-nation scheme to address individuals with severe mental health and substance use disorders, emphasizing how “we’re going to do it without taking away people’s rights.” Now, as of October 1, 2023, it is time for the plan to start coming to fruition. Undoubtedly, the CARE Court’s intention is admirable and entirely necessary. The plan appears to garner professional attention for loved ones in need, aside from partially answering state residents’ concern for the homelessness crisis. However, there is distrust coming from civil activists for how this plan can be manipulated to infringe upon the liberties of society’s most vulnerable. Although looking at the CARE Court without reading between the lines may appear optimistic, its potential for genuine outreach and achievement is not what most may anticipate.

An Infringement of Civil Liberties

For one, will the targeted demographic, those struggling with psychotic disorders and substance use abuse, be positively impacted by the CARE Court? Not necessarily. Eligibility for the CARE Court is a struggle in itself. A petition may be submitted to the court for the person seeking treatment, prompting a court-ordered clinical evaluation. In actuality, this evaluation is a way for the courts to deny treatment to those whose conditions are just as valid as those admitted on the premise of diagnosis. Many who may be most eligible under the standards of the court lack the resources to obtain a clear diagnosis. In short, unless a candidate poses a direct threat to themselves or others, the court will likely turn its back on them. 

Like any policy, this measure won’t appease everyone. Civil libertarians who value personal freedoms worry the court will violate basic rights and justify abuse of power – evident in the legal action that was taken earlier this year. In January 2023, Disability Rights California, the Western Center on Law & Poverty, and the Public Interest Law Project sued Governor Newsom to put an end to the Care Court. Claiming that the court is not only unconstitutional and would act out of bias, the Western Center on Law & Poverty doubts the commitment of the courts to act without a mandate and for the services to be readily available. This has led to a call to reevaluate the court and seek a balance between civil rights and social policies by providing housing and then beginning voluntarily-initiated treatment. Even if someone obtains this short-reaching service, how can anything be truly voluntary when a judge’s order is involved? Based on recent grapples with the justice system, most apparent in the 2020 call for reform, minority groups are critical of how this may prompt an abuse of authority against them, from those who have disabilities to those fall victim to systemic racism. These groups may be treated with more force and enforcement than others, seeing that the individual county’s court can act out of its authority, which is rather subjective than objective. 

Conservatorship Nullifies the Rest of the Court

Beyond the abuse of power, CARE Court can potentially land its participant in a state of legal trouble. “Participants who do not successfully complete Care Plans may, under current law, be hospitalized or referred to conservatorship,” the California Government stated. Conservatorship means the loss of management of personal and financial affairs to an appointed conservator and, ultimately, a loss of all the conservatee’s autonomy. An adult is subjected to legal guardianship out of force, derailing the entire noncompulsory emphasis of the court. This ties back into the abuse of power predicament. The possible bias of the court may subject certain racial or social groups to conservatorship even if it is unessential for their recovery.  The state is straddling a fine line between voluntary and forced care. Yes, consent to be enrolled will be voluntary, but once an individual is under the scrutiny of the courts, repercussions become nearly inevitable – and in the case of conservatorship, gravely serious. 

Striving to Attain The Unattainable 

The question of whether this plan is financially feasible also comes into consideration. California has invested in a $14 billion multi-year investment to provide 55,000 new housing units and treatment spots. Additionally, $10 billion will be invested annually in community behavioral health services. This investment in the direct service itself is imperative to the success of CARE Court, and it must be accounted for. California currently faces a limit on the availability of behavioral health services; there are fewer psychiatrists than necessary to meet demand. This ties into an unequal distribution of access throughout the state based on a city’s wealth, not on a demand for these resources. For example, Compton, a markedly underprivileged city in Los Angeles County, has five licensed psychologists compared to nearby Santa Monica’s 361. The court will attempt to solve this inequity but may be unable to bridge this sizable disparity. If counties and local governments do not comply with the state plan, the court has the ability to order sanctions and possibly even appoint an agent to ensure services are provided, and the end goal is to reach all of California’s 58 counties.

It is bold and somewhat admirable that Newsom has sought to address this in a way that balances accountability with supposedly equal and noncompulsory access. This admiration is rooted in the governor’s pursuit for California to be a leader in initiating policy and setting an example nationally. However, it must be executed mindfully. Many politicians struggle to absolve the current mental health crisis without running into the issues of civil liberties. Almost a year ago, New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams ordered first responders to involuntarily commit those experiencing a mental health or drug abuse crisis involuntarily, eliciting mixed responses. This attempt to ease a call for resource accessibility entirely misses the point of doing so without potentially harming ill individuals. At a minimum, California should be credited for its different expression of authority that claims to take a more humane approach. The fact that this involves judicial authority is likely to deter some; however, if accountability is held over those enforcing CARE Court, it is likely to find some degree of success with time. 

CARE Court has come into effect as of October 1, 2023 – beginning in the pilot counties of San Francisco, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Glenn, prior to expansion to the remaining 51 counties by December of 2024. It requires maximum trial, seeing how these resources can be allocated and properly funded to have a substantial impact. Yet, minimal error must come from the state and its courts, who must rule unprejudiced in their decisions to address the needs of each individual with objectivity. 

Saying this is a tricky plan for California to execute would be an understatement. However, it upholds an honorable intention to address a fundamental issue that plagues the state and the country altogether.

Featured Image Source: AP News

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