California Redefines the Concept of "Care"
There may not be a home for you to live in, but there’s now a judge who can order you to live there.
California’s politicians are about to complete a charade of epic proportions. The Governor of California is about to sign into law a massive new bureaucracy called the “CARE Court,” which stands for Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court. It’s a story not getting nearly enough attention.
I’m writing about CARE Court for two reasons: 1) The CARE Court scandal illustrates how bureaucrats craft “reforms” that actually make the structural problems of our society worse, and 2) The California political class strategically co-opted the language of “care” in service of an unprecedented expansion of state control and repression. In classic copaganda fashion, California politicians have dangerously used progressive language to justify new court bureaucracy, coerced “treatment,” and Orwellian conservatorship.1
What is CARE Court?
This is a complicated issue. But for background, you can read the basics of the CARE Court and why it is so alarming in this Human Rights Watch analysis that is comprehensive and devastating. In short, the plan creates an entirely new coercive court system in every county in California at significant cost to taxpayers. The plan gives this new massive bureaucracy increased power to force coerced treatment, specifically targeting people with mental illness and unhoused people. Ultimately, all of it is backed with the power of judicial orders, the threat of conservatorship (in which people lose power to make decisions over their lives and bodies), and the inherent power of the government to use violence to enforce those court orders. The law itself does not ensure or provide any new housing or treatment capacity for a system that is already in a crisis of scarcity. The new bureaucracy operates entirely separately from any investment or initiatives in the actual care that would be provided to people.2
You also have to understand that the push for CARE Court by Governor Newsom is coming against the backdrop of four larger phenomena:
A historic increase in inequality and shortage of affordable housing in California that causes widespread homelessness and housing insecurity;
A pervasive lack of sufficient treatment, either with respect to trained personnel or the physical infrastructure required to care for people’s medical problems;
A growing criminalization of poverty and mental illness, seen most recently in the wave of California cities criminalizing sitting, lying, or sleeping in public.
Elite political and upper class circles in California have been buzzing about the “disorder” on California’s streets. The sense of urgency to “do something” or to appear to be doing something about homelessness and mental illness has become a sort of obsession among people who see themselves as members of the political elite in California. This groupthink likely explains why Newsom’s plan passed the Senate 38-0 and the Assembly 62-2.
CARE Court Won’t Solve Homelessness or Mental Illness, It Makes Things Worse
The first important thing to note is that the bill is widely opposed by civil rights, human rights, mental health, medical, homelessness, and disability advocacy organizations. There is a general consensus among these experts that coerced treatment is terrible policy. Even if it were legal (and these groups have serious concerns that it will be implemented in a way that does not result in civil and human rights illegalities), they all agree that:
Forcing people to obtain “treatment” against their will is not an effective medical intervention.
Even the most coercive bureaucracy in the world will not solve a basic problem of math: California has not committed to doing anywhere what it takes to provide the supportive housing and mental health infrastructure to make a dent in the problem.
By diverting enormous sums of money and personnel into creating an entirely new government bureaucracy full of judges, court personnel, liaisons to other existing bureaucracies, consultants, county government lawyers, public defenders, etc… the CARE Court diverts enormous sums of money away from the investments that are needed and creates an additional layer that actually makes it harder for people to get what they need. (Anyone unfamiliar with the woeful inefficiency of California’s various existing court bureaucracies should read The Trial by Franz Kafka and then imagine something even larger and more ineffective at solving social problems.)
The Plan will hurt Californians in need of housing who do not suffer from mental illness by requiring counties to prioritize CARE Court participants for services and placement but not actually increasing the number of available places to live or the accessibility of services. So the bill will actually exacerbate the problems faced by other populations of people who are housing insecure or in need of treatment.
So, what’s really going on? Well, an unprecedented coalition of organizations has recently come together called Care First California.3 It includes larger nonprofit organizations like Human Rights Watch, but its core is a statewide network of community organizations, led by directly impacted people who are survivors of violence and community divestment.4 It’s a small piece of a broader movement in the United States to replace bureaucracies of control with investments in care. In my opinion, this language of investments in the things people need to flourish and a focus on helping community-based delivery of these things, is threatening both to existing bloated bureaucracies (like courts, police, prosecutors, prisons, probation, parole, etc.) but also to powerful interests who depend on certain features of the housing and health care systems to make enormous profits. As I’ve noted before, investments in systems of care are extremely popular among ordinary people and are backed by a scientific consensus that those investments promote safety far more than police, prosecutors, judges, and prisons. I believe that this narrative and policy threat from the left is a significant factor in the development and marketing of CARE Court.
Why Is Co-Opting Language of “Care” Dangerous Propaganda?
Seen in this light, the development of a more organized narrative around “care” on the left is deeply threatening to establishment bureaucrats and to organized interests who profit from the existing systems of isolation, punishment, and extraction.
Much of the talk since the George Floyd uprisings has focused on this debate playing out with funding for police. But an overlooked issue is the organized power of the judiciary and capital. In my work over the last 15 years, judges have consistently been the biggest obstacle to meaningful change on what are called “criminal justice” issues, especially in California. California has a uniquely powerful judicial lobby that is officially sanctioned and organized into the Judicial Council of California. The Judicial Council is an enormously effective lobby on both policy (to take just one example, it basically wrote the state’s draconian bail law that was passed but then rejected by voters in a referendum although the judiciary still managed to get $100,000,000s out of it). The creation of an entirely new civil court structure in every county as a purported solution to addressing vexing and pervasive issues of housing economics and public health was a huge coup for the judicial bureaucracy. It may be terrible policy, but a very important player in state politics just got a lot more money and power. And a very important set of interests—status quo beneficiaries, mostly people who own things—just scored a big propaganda win: these interests win every time the public is told that structural problems of inequality (like housing) can be solved not by confronting the things leading to inequality, but by regulating and managing that inequality with more layers of state power and control.
There may not be a home for you to live in, but there’s now a judge who can order you to live there. And in classic liberal fashion, California has made sure to provide, at taxpayer expense, a lawyer to represent you in a court battle over whether to force you to receive treatment from a service provider who doesn’t exist.
This represents another prominent example of a ruling political class that is incapable of actually addressing the structural problems of our society, particularly the lack of affordable housing, the lack of universal access to medical care, and growing inequality. So, unwilling to do the things that would be required to actually solve the problem, but threatened by a popular narrative from grassroots movements about the need to provide people the things they need to survive, the political elite turn to a marketing mirage: their own rhetoric of “care.” The goal is to make what they are saying difficult to distinguish from what people actually interested in “care” are saying. It’s mass obfuscation that traps us in an endless public relations loop designed to trick enough people into thinking that those in power are genuinely well-meaning and working to solve the big problems of our society. As a senior advisor to Governor Newsom put it:
All of this carries with it the same dangers that I wrote about with virtually every recent “criminal justice reform.” These reforms are often designed to take away energy from the radical changes the system needs by convincing well meaning but low-information voters who genuinely care about holistic well-being to support changes that will do nothing to fix the problems precisely because they preserve the underlying root causes of the problems.
And this is how you should see their rhetoric. They have repeatedly claimed that the law is about “preserving self-determination” and “self-sufficiency,” and “empowering” people. The very title is strategically chosen so that every Californian who hears about the issue on TV or radio or who reads any news article immediately thinks about the concept of “care.”
And it works. Here’s how the San Diego Union Tribune Editorial Board naively described the impetus behind the law, essentially reprinting claims from the Governor that the legislation is about “helping” the state’s most vulnerable people.
And here’s how a San Francisco Chronicle columnist portrayed Newsom’s supposed passion for “helping” the most vulnerable.
Only a profoundly lost government would unanimously pass a bill targeting homelessness that doesn’t provide any homes. Only a concerted propaganda effort can portray coerced government intervention opposed as ineffective and inhumane by the actual experts who devote their lives to working on these issues as “compassion.” Only the most cynical political elite would portray a court bureaucracy using threats of eventual violence to force involuntary treatment as “preserving self-determination.”
I devoted the first essay in my book Usual Cruelty to explaining why it is so dangerous when politicians use the language of progressive reform as a guise for expanding the architecture of state repression. (All royalties are donated to the Essie Justice Group, which organizes women with incarcerated loved ones to actually build systems of care in California.)
California has, over the years and including last year, appropriated additional money for some of these investments, but all involved acknowledge that they are woefully insufficient and that they are entirely separate from the Care court system, for which the only new funding is to training and court costs. In other words, the state could expand resources available to meet soaring demand without creating a new coercive, expensive bureaucracy for involuntary treatment.
There is also a broad No Care Court Coalition that formed in opposition to this bill.
Full disclosure, the organization that I founded, Civil Rights Corps, is a member of the Care First California Coalition.