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ACLU Sues California as Incompetent Defendants Wait in Jail for Mental Health Treatment

The ACLU filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of defendants declared incompetent to stand trial who languish in county jails across California while they await transfers to state mental health facilities.

When the suit was filed jointly by ACLU chapters in both northern and southern California in July 2015, between 300 and 400 incompetent defendants were pending admission to the Department of State Hospitals (DSH). Although state law mandates the transfer of those defendants to a treatment facility within 35 days, the average wait time was, at one point, more than 75 days.

Some prisoners awaiting treatment were still in jail five months after their commitment date; one former Los Angeles County Jail detainee (the son of a plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit, Nancy Leiva) was incarcerated for eight months before his transfer to a DSH facility.

Leiva said her son, who has intellectual disabilities, was raped multiple times in 2013 by another detainee, and once jail officials learned of the assaults they did nothing to provide him with psychological therapy or assistance. According to Leiva, her son “still suffers today.”

“Jail is simply too dangerous a place for these most vulnerable defendants,” said ACLU attorney Micaela Davis. “Often times these incompetent defendants don’t have the ability to follow rules, they get confused. 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.”

Another former jail detainee, Rodney Bock, was found incompetent to stand trial in April 2010 while being held at the Sutter County Jail. The self-employed farmer and father of four daughters was supposed to be sent to the Napa State Hospital but his transfer was delayed, and within days he “was unstable and unkempt, was talking to himself and to inanimate objects, and was refusing his medication,” according to a civil suit filed by his family.

On April 29, 2010, Bock began banging his head against the wall of his cell due to hallucinations; he later hanged himself. Sutter County ultimately paid Bock’s family $800,000 to settle their wrongful death suit in 2014. See: Estate of Bock v. County of Sutter, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:11-cv-00536-MCE-KJN. His daughters joined the ACLU lawsuit “in hopes of preventing other families from experiencing what they have,” according to a news report.

Incidentally, Napa County contributed to 2013 legislation related to the Napa State Hospital, explaining that a consequence of housing incompetent defendants in county jails was the “decompensation they exhibit when moved to the jail and the deterioration of their condition when they are kept in a segregated, non-clinical environment.” Delaying their admission to a DHS facility, the ACLU’s complaint argues, “decreases the probability that they will achieve competency to proceed with their cases in a timely manner.”

In written statements, the two agencies being sued by the ACLU – DSH and California’s Department of Developmental Services (DDS) – said hundreds of beds were being added to mental health treatment facilities for incompetent defendants, noting that the most recent state budget included funding for mental health services in both county jails and community-based facilities.

Dan Mistak, a mental health advocate in Oakland, said the lack of treatment beds has been an issue for decades. “There hasn’t been a social safety net for these folks,” he stated. “And what’s happened is the jails [have] actually stepped in, in order to make up for essentially what’s been a lack of those services everywhere else.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit seeks declaratory relief in terms of a finding that both DSH and DDS are violating incompetent defendants’ due process rights, plus an injunction requiring such defendants to be admitted to DSH facilities within a “constitutionally permissible time” after they have been found incompetent to stand trial. The suit raises claims under Article I, §§ 7 and 15 of the California Constitution, the Fourteenth Amendment and Cal. Code Civ. Pro. § 526a.

The district court denied the defendants’ motion to strike the complaint on April 26, 2016, but also dismissed the State of California as a defendant. The case remains pending. See: Stiavetti v. Ahlin, Superior Court of California, County of Alameda, Case No. RG15779731.

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Related legal cases

Stiavetti v. Ahlin

Estate of Bock v. County of Sutter