As Los Angeles County prepares for the December launch of the new statewide CARE (Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment) Court system—which could allow some people with mental illnesses to be assigned care plans or be put into conservatorships—county supervisors voted Tuesday to start the hiring process of about 100 mental health workers.
The state’s 58 counties are expected to phase in the new CARE Court system over the next two years, but LA County opted to move more quickly and is hoping to start accepting petitions for the court by Dec. 1.
A motion by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger said that pushing for the court’s implementation this year instead of December 2024 could mean that people in need of help with severe mental health issues could get it sooner.
CARE Court, which was proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and adopted by the legislature last year, was pitched both as a way for the state to grapple with its growing mental health crisis and as a way to get some of the most vulnerable unhoused people off the streets and into treatment.
Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to start the recruitment and hiring process for more county employees to serve the anticipated cases, the number of which could range between 4,500 and 7,000, according to the county.
Some supervisors tried to temper public expectations of how the CARE Court would affect street homelessness, since only those with schizophrenia or some other psychotic illnesses would qualify for the program, which is projected to be about 10% of the county’s unhoused population.
“I get calls from people who believe they’re going to see an overnight reduction in people with mental health issues on the streets,” Supervisor Holly Mitchell said.
Mitchell said she felt like she had no choice to support the item Tuesday given that the county is looking to close down jails and get people off the streets.
Others questioned if the $151 million the state has set aside to operate the program in its first year would be enough, and if five months is enough time for LA County to stand up its operation.
“I’m inclined to vote no today on this motion because I don’t feel we’re ready,” said Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, who was the lone dissenting vote.
Once the program is operational, there will be one dedicated court room for CARE Court, but other courts that handle mental health cases would still operate.
The state is directing funding to nonprofit legal services to represent people who end up in CARE Courts, but if the firms decline to represent a person or the person declines its services, the county’s public defender would represent those cases.
Connie Draxler, acting chief deputy director of the county’s Department of Mental Health, said that there would be two pathways for a person to enter the CARE Court.
The county could file a petition to get a court to rule on a mandatory care plan, or a family member or other person could file a petition, but either way, they’d have to be verified by a licensed professional that the person has a qualifying mental illness.
“If we’re able to get voluntary enrollment, we could get the petition dismissed,” Draxler said, noting that the county would push for voluntary enrollment in mental health services.
If a plan is mandated by a court, it would last for one year and could be extended for a second year, Draxler said.
Long Beach was supportive of the CARE Court proposal before legislators ultimately adopted it in September. Long Beach’s 2023 homeless count estimated that about 35% of those surveyed had some form of severe mental illness, but it’s unclear how many of those people would be eligible for CARE Court.
County officials said they would continue to push for additional funding to help pay for facilities needed for these potential new cases but they don’t expect a flood of petitions in December. If the department is not ready to move forward in December, county health officials told the board Tuesday that it would be honest about its ability to begin CARE Court operations this year.