Calif. Sued Over Care Delays for Mentally Ill, Disabled Defendants
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against California alleging that the state failed to transfer defendants with mental health issues or disabilities who were deemed incompetent to stand trial to state hospitals in a timely manner, Reuters reports (Bernstein, Reuters, 7/29).
Defendants in criminal court must be able to comprehend any charges against them and help in their own defense. If a defendant is unable to do so due to mental health issues, a judge can rule him or her mentally incompetent to stand trial and order the defendant to a state hospital to receive treatment.
Courts have recommended that defendants with mental health issues be sent to a state hospital within 35 days of such a decision (California Healthline, 6/9).
Details of Lawsuit
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of four families in Alameda County Superior Court, names the California departments of State Hospitals and Developmental Services as defendants (Reuters, 7/29).
The plaintiffs include:
- Children of a man with mental health issues who committed suicide in Sutter County Jail while waiting to be transferred to Napa State Hospital; and
- The mother of a man with developmental disabilities who was raped several times by another inmate at Los Angeles County jail while waiting eight months to be transferred to the Porterville Developmental Center (Sewell, "L.A. Now," Los Angeles Times, 7/29).
The lawsuit alleges that the departments failed to place defendants deemed incompetent in treatment centers in a timely manner (Reuters, 7/29). As result, individuals often were put in danger and their conditions often worsened, according to the plaintiffs.
According to the lawsuit, as of Feb. 9:
- 366 incompetent defendants had been waiting to be admitted to a state hospital, some of whom had been in jail for more than five months; and
- The last 25 individuals admitted to a hospital had been waiting for an average of 75 days.
The lawsuit argues that the state violated the individuals' constitutional right to due process and a speedy trial. It seeks a court order for hospitals to admit defendants deemed incompetent to hospitals within a "constitutionally permissible time" (AP/Sacramento Bee, 7/29).
Michael Risher, a staff attorney at ACLU of Northern California, said, "While these vulnerable defendants wait for transfer to treatment facilities, they're stuck in a tragic limbo," adding, "They're not receiving any treatment that would enable them to stand trial, and defendants often end up serving much more jail time than they would have under normal circumstances."
State officials said the agencies do not comment on pending cases. However, they noted that the state has made "significant efforts" to correct the issue.
For example, state officials noted that California has:
- Allotted funding in the state budget for about 140 more state hospital beds for defendants with mental health issues and 40 more hospital beds for those with developmental disabilities; and
- Encouraged counties to treat some defendants in local jails rather than in hospitals ("L.A. Now," Los Angeles Times, 7/29).