Hundreds of criminal defendants declared incompetent to stand trial are sitting in county jails around California awaiting transfer to state facilities for mental health treatment. By law these defendants must receive treatment within 35 days. But an American Civil Liberties (ACLU) lawsuit filed against the state says many vulnerable inmates languish in jail, sometimes for as long as a year.
“Jail is simply too dangerous a place for these most vulnerable defendants,” says Micaela Davis, one of the ACLU's lead attorneys in this lawsuit.
“Oftentimes these incompetent defendants don't have the ability to follow rules, they get confused,” Davis says. “This can result in them being subject to disciplinary sanctions, or result in them being confined to solitary confinement, which only exacerbates their mental health condition.”
And, Davis says, inmates with developmental disabilities can become targets. That's what happened to the son of one plaintiff, Nancy Leiva. Mentally disabled, he was held in Los Angeles County Jail for eight months, waiting for a court-ordered transfer to a state facility.
“During that time he was raped multiple times by another inmate,” Davis says. “Of course he suffered severe mental health consequences from that and still suffers today.”
Another inmate, Rodney Bock, committed suicide at Sutter County Jail before he could be transferred to Napa State Hospital. Sutter County paid his family $800,000 to settle a separate lawsuit. But his children joined the new suit in hopes of preventing other families from experiencing what they have.
Burden Falls on Jails
The burden of these delays falls to local sheriffs, who run county jails.
Cory Salzillo with the California State Sheriffs' Association says his group is working closely with the state to speed up the process so prisoners aren't stuck in jail.
“You know they take up bed space when they could be moving through the system,” Salzillo says. “It slows down proceedings, so it exacerbates court backups. While they're waiting for a bed they decompensate oftentimes, so their mental condition gets worse.”
The two state agencies sued by the ACLU declined KQED's interview requests. But in written statements, the Department of State Hospitals and the Department of Developmental Services wrote that hundreds of beds are being added for patients needing restoration of mental competency so they can stand trial. They also note the state budget included funding for mental health programs in county jails and in the community.
Dan Mistak of a nonprofit in Oakland that works with jails to develop community-based health service says the lack of treatment beds dates back decades, to when California began deinstitutionalizing mentally ill people.
“There hasn't been a social safety net for these folks, and what's happened is the jail has actually stepped in in order to make up for essentially what's been a lack of these services everywhere else,” Mistak noted.
The ACLU hopes this lawsuit will lead to quicker assessments and treatment so justice can be served in a more timely way.
Scott Shafer, a senior correspondent for KQED and host of the show's California Report, is a 2014-2015 John Jay/Langeloth Health and Justice Reporting Fellow. For the full report, published online August 12, and access to the broadcast version, please see HERE. His Twitter handle is @scottshafer. He welcomes comments from readers.