More people in California could be jailed against their will for a mental illness under a new bill backed Wednesday by mayors of some of the country’s biggest cities, who say they are struggling to care for the bulk of the homeless to care for the population of the country.
Federal data shows that nearly a third of the country’s homeless population lives in California, crowding the densely populated coastal cities of the nation’s most populous state. California lawmakers have allocated billions of dollars to local governments in recent years to address this problem, but often with mixed results, recently leading to a public scolding from Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Local leaders say their hands are tied in many cases because the people who need help most refuse to accept it. A state law allows courts to bring people into treatment, but only if they pose “a danger to themselves or others.” This new proposal would extend this definition to include people who are unable to take care of themselves or ensure their own safety because of a mental illness or an addiction to illicit drugs.
“As a mayor, I’m often asked, ‘Why aren’t you doing something about that person screaming at the top of his lungs on the street corner?’ And I say, “Well, they’re not a threat to themselves or anyone else” — and that sounds hollow,” said Todd Gloria, Democratic mayor of San Diego, the nation’s eighth-largest city of nearly 1.4 million people. “Our current rules set the bar so high that we cannot help this person.”
Lawmakers have tried for years to broaden the definition of severe disability — including a proposal last year that passed the Senate but never made it out of the state assembly.
Deb Roth, Senior Legislative Advocacy Group Disability Rights California, said her organization opposes the law because it would expand the law “in ways that are highly speculative and will result in more people being incarcerated against their will and giving them basic rights.” denied rights, including privacy and liberty.”
“The answer should be to invest in more voluntary, culturally-responsive mental health services and support to help people get on the road to recovery while preserving their dignity and civil rights,” she said.
State Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, said most homeless people have no mental health or addiction problems, but a small percentage of people living on the streets are so debilitated that they are unable to support themselves To make decisions.
“We can’t just stick them in a house and expect them to succeed,” he said. “Despite what some proponents say, it’s not progressive to just sit by and let people decompose, fall apart and eventually die on our streets.”
The bill is the latest attempt to update California’s 56-year-old mental health preservation law — an agreement under which the court would appoint someone to make legal decisions for another person, including accepting medical treatment and taking medication.
The issue recently came under the spotlight with the case of pop star Britney Spears, who was under a controversial conservatory run by her father and a lawyer before it was dissolved in 2021. But advocates said this is a different kind of conservatory with different rules than those lawmakers are trying to change.
Proponents point to the case of Mark Rippee, a Vacaville man who lived on the streets for years while his family pleaded for help. He died in November.
“We don’t want to take anyone to the hospital who doesn’t need inpatient treatment. But when that time comes and we can’t protect them, it’s devastating,” said Emily Wood, chair of the Government Affairs Committee of the California State Association of Psychiatrists.
Last year, Newsom signed legislation introducing a new court process where family members and others could ask a judge to create a treatment plan for specific people with specific diagnoses, including schizophrenia. This law would allow the judge to coerce people into treatment for up to a year. This new bill would go beyond that and reach out to more people – with a particular focus on people who are in imminent danger.
“Hopefully this will only address a smaller subset of the population struggling with mental health issues,” Eggman said.
Proponents said on Wednesday they believe they have enough support to pass the law this year, citing the new leadership of some key legislative committees in the state assembly.
Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher spoke during Wednesday’s press briefing, in a rare display of bipartisanship:
“We have this cycle of devastation, of human devastation in the streets, of people we all know need help and literally can’t get it because of the law in place. It has to change.”