SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — More Californians with untreated mental illness and addiction problems could be detained against their will and forced into treatment under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom for his growing homelessness crisis.
The new law, which reforms the state’s conservatorship system, expands the definition of “severely disabled” to include people who are unable to provide for their basic needs, such as food and shelter, due to untreated mental illness or unhealthy drug and alcohol use. Local governments say their hands are tied under current state law if a person refuses to accept help.
The law is intended to make it easier for authorities to care for people with untreated mental illnesses or alcohol and drug addictions, many of whom are homeless.
The bill was aimed, in part, at addressing the state’s homelessness crisis. There are more than 171,000 homeless people living in California – approximately 30% of the country’s homeless population. The state has spent more than $20 billion to help them in recent years, with mixed results.
Newsom is pushing forward with his own plan to reform the state’s mental health system. Newsom’s proposal that would do that Revision of the payment method of the districts for mental and behavioral health programs and a $6.3 billion loan to fund 10,000 new mental health treatment beds are expected to go before voters next March.
“California is conducting a comprehensive overhaul of our mental health system,” Newsom said in a signing announcement Tuesday. “We work to make sure no one falls through the cracks and that people get the help they need and the respect they deserve.”
The bill, authored by Democratic Sen. Susan Eggman, is the latest attempt to update California’s 56-year-old law on mental health conservatorships – an arrangement in which the court appoints someone to make legal decisions for another person, including questioning whether to accept medical treatment and take medication.
The bill was supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness California and mayors of California’s largest cities, who said the existing conservatorship law has made it difficult to provide mental health treatment to those most in need.
Opponents of the bill, including disability rights advocates, feared the new law would lead to more people being incarcerated and deprived of their basic rights. Forcing a person to undergo treatment can also be counterproductive, they said.
Eggman said detaining a person with a mental illness against their will should only be used as a last resort. The aim of the legislation is to provide an alternative to sending people with mental illness and addiction problems into the prison system.
“Our state prisons are full of people who are in our state prisons after being restored to competency because of serious mental health issues and drug addictions,” Eggman said in an interview. “I think this is the most inhumane way to treat the most vulnerable among us.”
The law goes into effect in 2024, but counties can delay implementation until 2026. The changes will serve as another tool to help the state reform its mental health system. Last year, Newsom signed a law This created a new legal process in which family members and others could ask a judge to devise a treatment plan for certain people with certain diagnoses, including schizophrenia. This law would allow judges to force people to undergo treatment for up to a year. The court program, started this month in seven counties that also aim to address the state’s homelessness crisis.