Governor Gavin Newsom has a bold new plan for a court system that he hopes will be a salve for the state’s twin homelessness and mental health crises. The details of his vision have yet to be fleshed out, but its principles are similar to a creative court program already in existence in Santa Monica.

On March 3, Newsom unveiled a proposal for a statewide network of mental health-focused courts called CARE Courts, which stands for Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment. The courts’ goal would be to leverage the judicial system to compel severely mentally ill individuals to accept services and treatments without impinging on their civil rights.

If approved by the legislature, every California county would be required to establish a CARE Court as a part of its civil court system. Individuals with mental health and substance use disorders could be referred to a CARE Court hearing by family members, law enforcement, homeless service providers and medical providers. Participation in court would be voluntary.

In court, individuals would be given a public defender and a personal advocate to help form a treatment plan for the judge’s approval, which would manage behavioral health issues and, when relevant, transition an individual into housing. The County would then be legally required to provide those services, meaning that the system would require significant investment in mental health, substance use recovery and housing resources statewide.

The CARE Court proposal is inspired by the model of local homeless community courts (HCCs), which have been established in cities across California to connect unhoused individuals to services and treatment. While the structure of these courts varies from location to location, they typically require unhoused individuals to follow a treatment plan in return for having misdemeanor charges expunged from their record upon completion. An example plan might include applying for housing resources, attending substance use counseling, meeting regularly with a case manager and showing up to follow-up hearings.

Santa Monica has one of the oldest HCCs and while it only handles a handful of participants at a time, it has had consistent success in breaking cycles of chronic homelessness throughout its 15 year history. From February 2007 through June 2019 it had 301 total participants, 181 of whom completed their 6 to 12 month treatment plan and 120 of whom moved into permanent housing.

“Ours is a really intensive collaborative restorative justice …….


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