SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Civil rights groups are challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new court program for people with severe mental illness.
Three groups — Disability Rights California, Western Center on Law & Poverty, and The Public Interest Law Project — filed a petition to the California Supreme Court on Thursday challenging the constitutionality of the CARE Courts program, which Newsom designed, championed, and signed into law last year.
The program allows a family member, first responder, or county behavioral health professional to seek court-ordered services for someone with severe mental illness. The court can order a clinical evaluation of the individual and, if they meet certain criteria, mandate they work with county behavioral health officers on a treatment, medication and housing plan.
Failure to participate in “any component” of the plan could result in additional hearings and court actions, including conservatorship.
Newsom and other supporters of the concept have framed it as a humane effort to help vulnerable Californians who might otherwise languish on the streets or in jails. But civil rights groups have opposed the law since its inception, arguing it could strip people of their rights and worsen their mental health. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has faced similar challenges following his directive last year to compel psychiatric evaluations of some residents.
The coalition of groups who filed the petition in California described the program as expanding “an already problematic system into a framework of coerced, court-ordered mental health treatment.”
They say the program wrongfully subjects Californians to involuntary treatment and fails to get at the root of the problem, such as the lack of affordable housing.
“The CARE Act unnecessarily involves our court systems to force medical care and social services on people. We are opposed to this new system of coercion,” said Helen Tran, a senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “The state’s resources should, instead, be directed at creating more affordable, permanent supportive housing and expanding our systems of care to allow everyone who needs help to quickly access them.”
The petition also names Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly.
Newsom’s office issued a pointed statement Thursday in response to the court filing.
“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,” said Daniel Lopez, the governor’s deputy communications director. “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.”
Seven counties are slated to launch their programs by October: San Francisco, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Glenn. The remaining 51 counties would start CARE Courts in 2024.
The concept of compelled mental health treatment has taken hold elsewhere — including in New York City, where Adams last year issued a directive allowing seriously mentally ill New Yorkers to be transported to hospitals for psychiatric evaluations without their consent.
That policy faces legal challenges of its own. In December a coalition of groups filed an emergency request for a federal judge to block the plan from going into effect.
California’s program is, in part, a response to the state’s growing homelessness problem. Nearly a quarter of all unsheltered Americans live in California, where massive encampments have taken over sidewalks, underpasses and public parks in most major cities. Democratic mayors across the state have increasingly favored more punitive measures for homeless people as public frustration grows.
Newsom has made homelessness a key focus, and under his leadership the state has allocated upwards of $15 billion for local governments to deploy shelters and services.