(The Center Square) – California lawmakers gave the final stamp of approval Wednesday to a bill backed by Gov. Gavin Newsom that provides court-ordered treatment plans and supportive services for people on the schizophrenia spectrum or with psychotic disorders.
The bill, which establishes the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act, received broad bipartisan support in both chambers of the Legislature, passing in a 62-2 vote in the Assembly and unanimously in the Senate. The bill now heads to Newsom’s desk.
“Today’s passage of the CARE Act means hope for thousands of Californians suffering from severe forms of mental illness who too often languish on our streets without the treatment they desperately need and deserve,” Newsom said in a statement Wednesday.
Backed by cities across the state and strongly opposed by disability rights advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union, the bill would let a person petition for a court-ordered plan that could include behavioral health care, medication, and housing. The petition triggers hearings to develop a treatment plan.
Adults experiencing a severe mental illness like schizophrenia and are either “unlikely to survive safely” without supervision or have a condition that requires support to prevent deterioration could qualify for the program. The CARE plan could last for up to two years, providing services like medication and treatment.
Newsom and others have touted the measure as a way to break the cycle of homelessness and incarceration among people with severe mental problems.
The measure has faced strong opposition from groups within California and across the nation who fear it will result in coerced treatment that would take away a person’s right to make their own care decisions.
Eric Harris, the director of Public Policy with Disability Rights California, told The Center Square Wednesday that the organization still has major concerns about the bill and is “disappointed” in its passage on Wednesday.
“Forced treatment and not providing guaranteed housing is not going to be beneficial to a lot of these people,” Harris said. “We believe that voluntary treatment options that are robust and guarantee accessible, affordable housing is going to bring out the best results and have people who want to engage in this type of process.”
Harris said the bill was constructed without input from a “large number of disability leaders,” noting that leaders at Disability Rights California “weren’t consulted at all.”
The bill received several amendments in its final days in the Legislature, including one that phases in implementation. The counties of Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and the city and county of San Francisco must implement the program by Oct. 1, 2023. The rest of the state has until Dec. 1, 2024.
Other amendments require funding from the Department of Health Care Services and substitute the director of county behavioral health as the petitioner if someone other than the director petitions the court.
As the bill wound its way through the Legislature, lawmakers raised concerns about how the program would be funded and whether counties would have the staffing to handle the program. In the end, the bill won praise from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers for its potential to curb addiction and homelessness.
“This measure, I believe, is the first truly bipartisan attempt to compassionately clear homeless encampments off our streets, sidewalks and highways, to assess the health behavior and needs of homeless individuals and to put together an actual plan to stop the downward spiral that many homeless individuals have so long been on,” Senator Brian Jones, R-Santee, said Wednesday.
Two lawmakers voted against the measure – Assemblymember Ash Kalra and Mark Stone. In a statement sent to The Center Square, Kalra said he could not support the bill because the program has “missing pieces needed for an effective, sustainable solution.”
“While I echo the urgency to find a solution, if we do not couple permanent housing and wraparound services for our unhoused with severe mental illness, we are setting them up for failure,” Kalra said.
Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign the legislation.