Governor Gavin Newsom’s CARE Courts are now law after he signed the legislation on September 14. Senate Bill 1338, a Newsom proposal, will create a specialized mental health court where judges can compel people with mental health disabilities and substance use conditions into treatment. The bill allows a broad list of “specified individuals” to refer somebody for conservatorship, and sets a similarly broad set of conditions qualifying them for CARE Court.
The list of “specified individuals” includes police officers, and the criteria for placing a person under “care” include being on the spectrum for schizophrenia and not having decision-making capacity for medical care.
By August 18, when the Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP) staged a teach-in on SB 1338 outside San Francisco City Hall and the Superior Court, the legislation was already well on its way to passage with an overwhelming majority. James Burch, the Project’s deputy director, told a crowd of some 40 people, “We’re trying to make sure everybody knows how messed up it is and mobilize some popular energy so that we can resist implementation locally.”
For all the lip service paid to “care” in the bill, none of the $65 million set aside for the program will fund behavioral health services.
“Evidence shows that providing housing and adequately resourced, voluntary outpatient treatment—not court-ordered treatment—is most effective for treating the population CARE Court seeks to serve,” says Yessica Hernandez, an organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness. “Californians don’t need another racist court system and mental health consumers don’t need another politician stoking fear and pushing fake solutions for political gain.”
“The way the system works is by using a carrot-or-stick model,” Burch said at the teach-in. “By that, I mean once you are referred to CARE Court, the judge and team will try to convince you that whatever plan they’re offering should be accepted,” adding that such a plan would empower the court to deprive one’s right to self-determination. A person in CARE Court can be placed in involuntary holds if they refuse medication for any reason, or does not comply with any of the court’s requirements.
The CARE Courts would also perpetuate existing racial disparities, according to APTP. One thing that the legal, mental health and homeless systems share is the disproportionate number of Black people caught up in them. Lopsided arrest and incarceration rates among Black people are already well documented. In California, Black people only make up 6.5 percent of the general population, but account for nearly 40 percent of the homeless population. A 2014 study in the World Journal of Psychiatry reported that Black people in the U.S. are diagnosed with schizophrenia at three times the rate of white people.
APTP Executive Director Cat Brooks also noted the overlap between race, mental health disabilities, and victimization from state violence.
“With an estimated quarter of police shootings involving people with mental health disabilities, the idea of having police force Black and brown folks into treatment is a recipe for more police terror on people of color,” she said.
San Francisco is among the first of seven counties that will pilot the CARE Courts by October 1, 2023; California’s remaining counties will implement them by December 1, 2024.
TJ Johnston is the Assistant Editor of Street Sheet, San Francisco’s street newspaper.