A photo of Riverside County Public Defender Steve Harmon addressing the Riverside County Board of Supervisors during the Oct. 17 meeting.
Riverside County Public Defender Steve Harmon addresses the Riverside County Board of Supervisors during the Oct. 17 meeting. (Photo by Alicia Ramirez)

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors last week accepted approximately $5 million from the State Bar of California to support the county’s Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Court program.

“CARE court, I think, is offering and brings to the state and to Riverside County a great deal of hope for a new way to deal with people who really need our help,” Riverside County Public Defender Steve Harmon said. “The people that will be hopefully benefited by CARE court are very needy people, they need help.”

CARE Court launched earlier this month in San Francisco, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Glenn counties and is aimed at providing those with severe mental health disorders treatment by allowing the court to order the county to provide behavioral health treatment in community-based settings.

“Our job is to work with the client and do everything we can to encourage the client to see the importance of accepting these services that are being offered by the court through behavioral health and to encourage the client to stay in the program,” Harmon said. “It’s a completely voluntary program.”

The process is started when a person is referred to the court by family, close friends, first responders or behavioral health workers. Once the referral is made, the court reviews the petition. If the person is eligible to participate, the court will then order a CARE plan be developed in cooperation with behavioral health, the participant, their legal counsel and supporter. Once the plan is accepted by the court, the participant is eligible to receive ongoing treatment and support throughout the duration of the plan.

“What is really unique, in my opinion, especially to us, is this is not going to be an adversarial program,” Harmon said. “In other words, it’s not the [district attorney] versus the public defender in this case. I think the best part of CARE Court actually is the [district attorney’s] not involved in this. That’s just a public defender joke.”

Harmon also noted that there are no repercussions for people who decide to leave the program. They will not be facing jail time or prosecution as a result of walking away from their CARE plan, though Harmon said his office would be working to make sure that their clients are able to see the value in remaining in the program.

But, Harmon said, his office cannot do the work required of them without hiring additional staff, which will initially be covered by the State Bar of California. But with the variability of state funding remaining available for the effort, Harmon said his office was taking a two-prong approach to mitigate potential impacts to the county if the funding were to stop.

“The first part is that we plan to hire county employees to do the CARE court work only as necessary,” he said. “The second part is that if all funding stops, and we have these county employees, our second part is absorption. We will absorb those county employees into our regular operations to fill our regular operations and fill our regular needs.”

In the first two weeks of the program Van Wagenen said CARE Court had received 23 referrals, five of which have resulted in petitions currently moving their way through the CARE Court system.

“It’s a slow start, but it’s what we thought it would be,” he said.

And though the program has gotten off to a slow start, both Van Wagenen and Harmon said they were confident that, despite the risk of being in the first cohort, the program would be successful in Riverside County.

“I think in the final analysis CARE Court presents a risk to the county, but I think it’s a risk that needs to be taken,” Harmon said. “And I think it’s a risk that, if we put ourselves into it, we can make it successful.”

In other board action: The Riverside County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an expansion of an agreement between legal firm Nossaman, LLP, and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office for counsel and services related to the Ben Clark Training Center project at a total cost of $300,000 from the sheriff’s department’s budget.

A video of the meeting can be found here on the county’s website.

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Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.