California governor’s mental health court plan advances amid worries

A controversial proposal by California Governor Gavin Newsom to urge more homeless people to seek mental health treatment is making its way through the legislature, despite deep misgivings from lawmakers struggling to address a problem that reaches every corner of the state.

Lawmakers are concerned that there are not enough employees or guaranteed housing for the program to succeed while forcing vulnerable individuals to provide court-ordered services against their will. However, the bill was approved unanimously in the Senate last month, and passed the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, one of several stops before it could be voted on by the full House.

But the proposal also received its first no-vote, and members frustrated with the status quo stressed how important it was for all parts — housing, services, trained staff, and sincere support — to be in place for the program to work.

“I know we can all agree that the current system is broken and failing,” said Assemblyman Matt Haney, a Democrat who lives in the Tenderloin area of ​​San Francisco, where homeless people struggle with substance abuse and the homeless with severely disrupted mental health are common sights.

“We are in dire need of a paradigm shift,” he said.

Newsom, a Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, has made homelessness a priority of his administration, committing billions of dollars to converting motels into housing and pushing them to clear campgrounds. He proposed spending $2 billion this year to create more treatment beds and in March he proposed creating special mental health courts in each county to connect services to homeless individuals with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.

Nearly a quarter of California’s estimated 161,000 residents suffer from severe mental illness. They shuttle between prisons, emergency rooms, makeshift psychiatric holdings, and the streets until they are arrested for a minor crime and brought before a judge who can order them to have a long-term treatment plan.

Newsom said his proposal allows family members, emergency dispatchers and others to refer the person for help, preferably before the person commits a crime. He said it was not sympathetic to let distressed people deteriorate in the streets. The goal, he said, is to get the person to voluntarily accept services and participate in their treatment.

But the legislation could lead to coercive treatment, which is worrying civil liberties advocates. It does not guarantee housing or provide customized funding, and it comes at a time of increased demand for psychologists and other behavioral health professionals. Critics of the legislation also say that forced treatment will fail.

“In no way should there be a coercive situation where you push needles into people or force them to take medicine, that’s where you get to people who resent it and regret it and go on a downward spiral of self-medication or other treatment,” said Eric Harris. D., director of public policy at Disability Rights California, who opposes the bill, “Count Cases.”

Assemblyman Ash Clara, a Democrat from San Jose, voted against the proposal on Tuesday, agreeing with critics who say judicial courts are a scary place for homeless people and that more money should go to organizations that are already doing the hard, intense and slow work. The work of persuading people to accept services.

The legislative analysis submitted to the Judicial Committee raised serious concerns about the proposal.

It strongly recommended that people not be required to enroll in the court program until housing and services are guaranteed and that provinces not implement the program until infrastructure is in place. According to the analysis, the state should not sanction or fine counties until they have the resources, and funding for voluntary community programs to support the new program should not be curtailed.

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