One of the tents from the homeless encampment under the Guadalupe Freeway, adjacent to a newly constructed building near San Jose Diridon Station, in San Jose, Calif., on May 25, 2021. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

State officials unveiled a program Thursday intended to increase support for California residents who struggle with severe mental illness, substance abuse issues and homelessness.

The proposal — called Care Court, with “care” standing for community assistance, recovery and empowerment — would require each of the state’s 58 counties to create a civil court division focused on mental health that will be able to compel treatment for mentally ill people who may not understand that they need it.

Counties that do not abide by the program, which would be funded by the state, could be punished for failing to do so.

Through the Care Court system, people suffering from mental illness or severe addiction could be sent before a superior court judge if recommended by a family member or social worker who believes the person cannot adequately care for themselves.

People could also be called before a judge if they are accused of a crime or if they are soon to be released from an involuntary psychiatric hold.

The judge would then consider a 12-24-month care plan developed by local clinical workers and could compel the person to undergo treatment if they approve the plan, which can include clinical and psychiatric services, stabilizing medications and ensuring access to housing.

“(Care Court) puts the person with lived experience, puts the people who are suffering on the street at the center of treatment and works to ensure they are empowered during and after effective treatment promotes their overall mental and social stability,” state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Thursday.

Ghaly and Jason Elliott, a senior counselor to Gov. Gavin Newsom, argued Care Court is conceptually different from existing methods of care for people who cannot care for themselves such as conservatorships and programs under Laura’s Law, which allows court-ordered mental health treatment.

Elliott said most existing court-ordered mental health treatment programs are put in place after someone has been arrested or hospitalized, and Care Court is intended to provide pre-emptive care and treatment.

He added that many who would be eligible for Care Court treatment would not be new to the court system and may already be involved in the conservatorship process or could be at risk of arrest.

“The vision of Care Court is getting to someone earlier in their life before they find themselves either, God forbid, on death’s door or having just potentially committed a crime or needing a conservatorship,” Elliott said.

“We need to treat brain health early before we punish it later,” Newsom said at a briefing on the program in San Jose.

Ghaly estimated the state has between 7,000 and 12,000 residents who would be eligible for the Care Court program, including those who would be eligible even if they are not homeless.

The Legislature will be required to approve the Care Court program before it can go into effect as soon as January 2023.

The text of a Care Court bill has yet to be written, according to state officials, and will ultimately include how much state funding the program will need to effectively operate.

Newsom and Elliott argued that while the state approved $12 billion last year for homeless spending and Newsom included an additional $2 billion in his 2022-23 budget proposal, a different approach is needed to reduce homelessness and treat those who are mentally ill.

“We have scale of a problem,” Newsom said. “And it’s going to require a different scale of approach and a new mindset in terms of how we approach it and that’s what Care Court is.”