In the Public Interest: Santa Cruz County officials eye CARE Court uncertainly as implementation inches closer

California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a visit to storm-ravaged Capitola Village
California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a January visit to storm-ravaged Capitola Village.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In this edition of In the Public Interest, Christopher Neely looks at what’s ahead for Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Courts, the state’s system of courts with the power to compel people suffering from some diagnosed mental health conditions into state-sponsored treatment. Santa Cruz County faces a deadline of December 2024 to implement its CARE program.

This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be first the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.

California curtailed the courts’ ability to institutionalize the mentally ill against their will when Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act in 1967. In hindsight, many view the decision as the opening shot that led the state to its modern, intersecting crises of homelessness and mental illness.

Fast forward to today and county jails in California are seen as one of the largest, if not the largest, providers of mental health care in a community. In Santa Cruz County, as of last week, approximately half of the jail population receive some type of prescribed psychotropic drug to treat mental illness, according to the county sheriff’s office.

The problem of mental illness is especially prevalent in the unhoused community. According to the county’s 2022 point-in-time count, 39% of the counted 2,300 people living outside self-reported a psychiatric or emotional disorder.

As with many California communities, rising rates of homelessness have overwhelmed Santa Cruz County in recent years, and the trend of unhoused folks jaded by the system and rejecting help from formal channels has left officials searching for answers. More delicate still is the question of how to address severe mental illness among the houseless population, especially when society has moved beyond involuntary commitment.

When it comes to the severely mentally ill, the ethics between the state taking away an unhoused person’s rights through institutionalization or allowing them the freedom to potentially waste away in the street without support are blurry and Rorschachian.

Another option will soon be on the table in every California county. Signed into law last September by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Courts will install an entirely new court system in each county with the power to compel people suffering from diagnosed schizophrenia spectrum or other psychotic disorders into state-sponsored treatment.

Santa Cruz County, like most counties, will not be required to roll out its CARE Court program until December 2024. For now, all eyes will be on San Francisco and the six other counties the state has tasked with implementing a CARE program by this October. Nicole Coburn, assistant county administrative officer, told the Santa Cruz City Council on April 11 that there is still a lot of guessing as to how this will unfold locally and throughout California.

That presentation in front of the city council was simply an info session to give the city a heads-up of what’s ahead. With more than 18 months until implementation, efforts to begin shaping the CARE Courts are not yet a priority, said county spokesperson Jason Hoppin, though county officials have been meeting quarterly to discuss it.

Coburn said it was still unclear where a majority of the money would come from to stand up the program locally, given the needs for funding for housing, social and medical services, the public defender’s office, and staff. A statewide, $3-5 billion bond related to the program could be on the ballot in November 2024, according to Coburn, leaving the funding stream up to voters. Given the uncertainty, Coburn said the county is preparing to set aside money from its already strapped general fund budget for CARE.

“At this moment it’s pretty much an unfunded mandate,” Coburn said.

Although CARE Court received overwhelming support in the state legislature (former Assemblymember Mark Stone [D-Scotts Valley] was one of only two legislators to vote against it), it has drawn sharp criticism and a series of lawsuits. Depending on whom you ask, CARE Courts either offer a voluntary alternative to incarceration or state-sponsored conservatorship, or strip away a person’s right to self-determination. The reality likely lies somewhere in between.

In one way, CARE Courts offer a diversion from the criminal justice system. If someone suffering from a severe psychotic disorder commits a felony, the district attorney could determine that person needs dedicated mental health treatment instead of incarceration, and petition the local CARE Court to consider the case. The person then has a choice: submit themselves to the court-created 12-month treatment plan — which comes with medication, housing and social work — or serve time in jail. In this scenario, CARE is technically voluntary but the other option is incarceration.

However, CARE Courts are not exclusively for people charged with a crime. The legislation allows a roommate, social worker, health care professional, lawyer, law enforcement officer or other first responder to file a petition with a CARE Court on behalf of someone they believe to be suffering from a psychotic disorder. This person is then brought in front of a judge who can determine, with the help of behavioral health professionals, whether they require a court-ordered treatment plan.

If the person (who is afforded independent legal representation) rejects the treatment plan, two paths open up. The judge can decide either (1) the person is capable enough to take care of themselves and walk free, or (2) their illness is so severe that they require a state-sponsored conservatorship.

Heather Rogers, Santa Cruz County's first public defender.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Heather Rogers, the county’s public defender, says this aspect of the CARE Court initiative upends the status quo.

“Right now, there is no mechanism to haul someone into court who hasn’t committed a crime and put them before a judge because they are suffering from a psychotic disorder,” Rogers said. “Any time you open the door to system involvement, there is a danger you are jeopardizing their autonomy and violating their civil rights.”

Rogers expects her office to be representing many of the people who come through CARE Court. Although she says she doesn’t necessarily welcome the change, she is committed to making it work for the vulnerable communities it will affect.

Henry Martin, an attorney with the Watsonville Law Center, says the program could turn into something positive, unless it is used as “a way to sweep the streets clean.” At this point, caution is his mantra.

“This is the closest I’ve seen California get to a housing-first model of dealing with homelessness,” Martin tells me. “But we’re waiting to see what the local plan will be. This is just an incredibly complicated piece of civil procedure. Even if someone’s actions rise to the threshold of possible danger to themselves or others, then there is still room to talk about whether a compulsory program is appropriate, and I think CARE skirts that.”

Of Note

Housing win: The City of Santa Cruz announced last week that it fulfilled its state mandate to permit 747 new housing units, at varying levels of affordability, between 2015 and 2023. According to the city, only 6% of jurisdictions across the state are on track to reach their state-mandated housing targets. The real challenge will be this upcoming housing cycle, in which Santa Cruz has been called on to permit 3,736 new housing units between the end of 2023 and 2031, a fourfold increase.

inside the Claude "Bud" Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in Carlsbad
Inside the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in Carlsbad.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Desalin’: Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is doubling down on its desire to fortify the state’s clean water security through new desalination projects. Desalination is the resource-intensive process of converting seawater into clean drinking water, and is seen as environmentally controversial. Newsom’s office sent out a media release last week touting a new $5 million investment in three desalination projects, in Los Angeles, Mendocino and Fresno counties. You might remember desalination coming up in the Monterey Bay region in 2022. The California Coastal Commission approved a contentious desalination project for Marina in November, and, in the same month, the Santa Cruz City Council approved a long-term water plan that considers desalination as a possible solution to water security in what’s expected to be an increasingly dry future. However, official conversations around which major water projects Santa Cruz will choose are still years away.

Know This Number

$30,000: The estimated cost, at the top end, to build and install a pre-approved outdoor dining parklet in the city of Santa Cruz.

The Week Ahead

Housing vote: The Santa Cruz City Council will vote on Tuesday to push through its housing element, which is essentially proof to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development that the city has room and the appropriate zoning to fit the 3,736 units it is required to permit by 2031, through the state’s regional housing needs allocation program. The city’s planning commission approved the plan last Thursday.

An outdoor dining parklet outside the Penny Ice Creamery on Cedar Street in downtown Santa Cruz
An outdoor dining parklet outside the Penny Ice Creamery on Cedar Street in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Parklet votes: Also in front of the Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday: parklets. The city council will vote on a pre-approved, standard parklet design for outdoor dining at city restaurants. The mayor and council will also mull an incentive program that offers restaurants a $10,000 grant to build the pre-approved parklets, or a $5,000 grant to retrofit their existing parklets.

Pesticide notes: The Watsonville City Council on Tuesday will welcome a presentation from the Campaign for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture (CORA) on toxic pesticide use near homes and schools. The presentation comes as questionable pesticide use in local agriculture has come more into public view, thanks in part to a Lookout investigative series on the issue last fall.

Weekly News Diet

Local: As my colleague Hillary Ojeda reports, the City of Santa Cruz and UCSC might be ready to shake hands, drop a pair of lawsuits and work toward resolving a dispute outside of court over the university’s plans to grow.

Golden State: As I mentioned above, San Francisco County is one seven counties that will need to have their CARE Courts set up by the fall. However, San Francisco is already running into financial problems and will need to come up with $50 million per year for housing and treatment services on top of the cost of running the actual court. The issue lays bare the gap between the ambitions of the state legislature and the reality of implementing such an expensive and resource-heavy program. (David Sjostedt for the San Francisco Standard)

National: We are watching a geopolitical drama unfold in real time as Chinese President Xi Jinping has hosted and wooed French President Emmanuel Macron and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with lavish visits this month and extended a hand to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, all while refusing attempts from the U.S. to cool tensions over Taiwan. (David Pierson for the New York Times)

One Great Read

“Matthew Henson: The US’ unsung Black explorer” by Robert Isenberg for the BBC

The going narrative has been that explorer Robert E. Peary discovered the North Pole in 1909. While Peary has received the legacy and the accolades, little attention has been paid over the years to his right-hand man, Matthew Henson, a Black U.S. explorer who made his most significant contributions during the height of Jim Crow. Born into a family of sharecroppers, Henson’s life trajectory changed after crossing paths with Peary around 1887.

Over the next 18 years, Henson would accompany Peary and a team of explorers on expeditions to the Arctic Circle, eventually planting the American flag on the North Pole in 1909. This short BBC profile traces Henson’s journey from sharecropper to explorer to eventually fading from the history books as Peary’s legacy grew.

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