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Civil rights groups to Gavin Newsom: Court-mandated mental health treatment is unconstitutional

A group of disability and civil rights organizations is hoping to block Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest plan to address California’s homeless crisis by moving people with severe, untreated mental illness off of the streets into court-ordered treatment programs.

Three organizations — Disability Rights California, Western Center on Law & Poverty, and The Public Interest Law Project — filed a petition on Thursday with the California Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of a new statewide program to compel residents struggling with mental health and addiction into court-ordered treatment.

The lawsuit asks the state’s highest court to strike down development of a new civil court system — dubbed the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court, or CARE Court — for those diagnosed with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.

The organizations argue that the program “robs unhoused Californians of their autonomy to choose their own mental health treatment” and threatens those with disabilities of their fundamental rights, all while failing to guarantee they will get permanent housing and coordinated community care.

“While the intersecting crises of homelessness and serious mental illness demand effective actions and significant resources, the Care Act provides neither,” Mike Rawson, director of litigation for Public Interest Law Project, said in a statement. “Such coercive systems and treatments have been proven ineffective and will only serve to perpetuate institutional racism and worsen health disparities.”

Amid mounting pressure to tackle the state homeless crisis, Newsom concocted and unveiled his proposal for CARE Court in March. Although the program is also open to Californians who have stable housing, the governor has repeatedly framed it as an innovative tool to treat some of the state’s most vulnerable residents — those living in sordid conditions who often cycle between the streets, hospitals and jails.

In September, Newsom signed the bill into law. The governor’s administration estimated that 10,000 to 12,000 people could qualify for the program while county officials believe that number could soar as high as 50,000, according to an Assembly floor analysis.

In a statement, Daniel Lopez, Newsom’s deputy communications director, condemned those behind the lawsuit, saying that efforts to block CARE Court’s implementation would “needlessly extend the suffering of those who desperately need our help.”

“There’s nothing compassionate about allowing individuals with severe, untreated mental health and substance use disorders to suffer in our alleyways, in our criminal justice system, or worse – face death,” the statement read. “While some groups want to delay progress with arguments in favor of the failing status quo, the rest of us are dealing with the cold, hard reality that something must urgently be done to address this crisis. People are dying – we need to do better.”

Under the new law, family members, first responders and medical professionals, among others, can also seek to enter someone with mental illness into treatment. The policy then requires people to participate in treatment programs and also mandates that counties make services available to them.

The program is scheduled to be rolled out in two phases. The first group of counties — Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne — are required to establish courts by Oct. 1, 2023, while the rest of the state has until Dec.ember 2024 to comply.

The organizations petitioned the state Supreme County directly in hopes of expediting the process and receiving a decision sooner than if they filed the suit in a lower court.

“The CARE Act seeks to trade in people’s fundamental rights in favor of an ineffective short-term system,” said Sarah Gregory, senior attorney at Disability Rights California. “(Disability Rights California and its allies will continue to fight for permanent housing and voluntary services.”