Governor Newsom has a bold plan to rethink the state’s approach to homelessness and mental illness, and while the proposal has drawn polarized reactions, one of its strongest supporters is State Assemblymember and former Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom.

Newsom seeks to establish a statewide network of “CARE Courts,” which would provide court-mandated treatment plans for severely mentally ill individuals, and in particular individuals experiencing homelessness and psychotic illnesses. 

Under the proposal, family members, first responders, and mental health care providers could petition the court to implement a plan. Once passed by the judge, the relevant County would be legally obligated to provide the prescribed care, including housing resources when applicable. 

Bloom, who represents Assembly District 50, introduced the assembly version of the CARE Court bill, AB 2830, and stands by its principles despite vocal pushback from disability and civil rights groups. 

“As a former Mayor who helped create and sustain a Homeless Court in Santa Monica, I am optimistic that a carefully crafted CARE Court model will provide real benefits for the most vulnerable members of our communities,” stated Boom on April 8. “I am fully committed to doing everything I can to work with all stakeholders in order to ensure their successful implementation and long-term operation.”

On April 12, more than three dozen such organizations—including the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights California and the Western Center on Law and Poverty—signed a letter in opposition to AB 2830.

Nevertheless, CARE Court cleared its first legislative hurdle at the end of April, when the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the senate version of the bill, SB 1338. It will face its next hearing by the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 16.

The assembly version of the bill, however, is on pause after being introduced by Bloom in February. While Bloom maintains his support for the legislation’s vision, he recognizes that many concerns have been raised by groups that advocate on behalf of the disabled, mentally ill and homeless individuals and is working with the governor’s office to engage these parties in discussion. 

“Asm Bloom parked the bill voluntarily at the request of the Newsom administration in order to allow more time to discuss issues of concern and find common ground that is of maximum benefit to those we are wanting to help,” stated Melissa Kaufler, communications director. “We are at the very beginning of a process that will likely accelerate quickly. Asm Bloom felt it was best to create a little more breathing room for discussions and intends to stay fully engaged.”

According to estimates from the Governor’s Office, CARE Court would apply to 7,000 to 12,000 people experiencing severe mental illness across California. 

The need for a statewide system of mental health care dates back to the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which ended the notoriously abusive system of involuntarily committing mentally ill individuals in psychiatric facilities. 

The LPS Act replaced the asylum system with the conservatorship system, whereby family members can petition a court to have control over a loved one’s medical treatment. The bar to establish a conservatorship is very high and following the LPS Act, the state did not develop a robust mental health care system to treat those who do not meet the standard of “gravely disabled.”

“This lack of community care led to an increase in homelessness and incarceration for people experiencing mental illness,” said Aditi Shakkarwar, field representative for Asm. Bloom, during a May 5 presentation to the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. “So the goal of CARE Court is to act as an upstream diversion before individuals end up in the criminal justice system or become so impaired that they end up in a Lanterman-Petris-Short Act mental health conservatorship.

Individuals who fail to comply with their CARE Court Plan could be redirected to conservatorship hearings or a criminal court, if they had previously chosen CARE Court as an alternative to a traditional justice filing. It is this element of compulsion that disability and civil liberties organizations find particularly alarming about CARE Court. 

“The state should invest in evidence-based practices for voluntary engagement in community-based, trauma-informed, culturally-responsive mental health services,” stated Kim Pederson, senior attorney at Disability Rights California, in an April 26 opposition letter to SB 1338. “Instead, CARE Court creates a punitive system under which a person must comply with court orders or risk being conserved and institutionalized. True recovery and empowerment can only come from providing people with meaningful opportunities to make their own choices about the services that will work best for them.”

This letter, which was also signed by leaders of over 40 advocacy groups, raised additional concerns over how CARE Court will be able to provide enough housing for its clients and whether it will disproportionately place people of color under court supervision. Collectively these organizations have notable influence in Sacramento. 

On the other hand there is a broad coalition of liberal politicians who believe that CARE Court is a viable solution to the state’s twin mental health and homelessness crises. In addition to Bloom, vocal supporters include San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, State Senator Anthony Portantino of the San Gabriel Valley and State Senator Tom Umberg of Orange County. 

Given this divided response, it is unclear whether Newsom will be able to push AB 2830 and SB 1138 through the state legislature in line with his initial July 1 goal. 

Clara@smdp.com