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Mentally Incompetent Detainees Stuck in California Jails Spark Class-action Lawsuit, Fines

by Christopher Zoukis

California county jails are facing lawsuits and court-imposed fines over their handling of detainees who have been determined incompetent to stand trial due to mental illness.

In Ventura County, the families of mentally ill detainees have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court over the denial of proper treatment and delays in transporting detainees to state mental hospitals. The plaintiffs claim that mentally ill defendants who have been found incompetent to stand trial routinely wait for months to receive treatment at a hospital. During that time they are often housed in isolation and denied commissary privileges, visits and phone calls. Sometimes, the suit alleges, mentally ill detainees are literally housed in rubber-lined rooms.

The complaint, which names the California Department of State Hospitals (DSH), Patton State Hospital, MHM Services of California, Inc. and California Forensic Medical Group, Inc. as defendants, alleges that at least 36 detainees spent an average of 131 days in Ventura County jails waiting for transport and treatment.

“These individuals often end up spending more time in jail prior to adjudication than they would if they had pleaded guilty,” attorney Brian Vogel wrote in the suit. “More importantly, the delays have caused individuals with mental health disabilities to suffer needless deterioration in their mental health as they sit in jail, frequently in prolonged isolation, for weeks and months without constitutionally adequate mental health treatment as they await placement in a facility licensed to provide restorative treatment.”

Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean, who was dismissed from the lawsuit, said he recognizes that improvements are needed.

“The mental health problems in jail facilities throughout the state [are] huge,” he stated. “As any sheriff in the state would probably tell you, none of us want to house people who have mental health issues, but the problem is ... there is no other place for them to go.”

Although defendants whose mental health symptoms have been stabilized can be referred to outpatient treatment under the Forensic Conditional Release Program, known as CONREP, the private companies hired to handle psychiatric care for jail detainees rarely do so.

“The state is farming out a lot of their CONREP contracts to private operators like MHM because they are doing it cheaper than the counties are,” Vogel stated. “These private companies obviously have a profit margin. No one ever gets recommended for placement for CONREP, and the person making these recommendations is a guy from this private corporation.”

The suit remains pending. See: Scott v. California Forensic Medical Group, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:16-cv-03084-BRO-RAO.

Meanwhile, in Contra Costa, California, a judge had stern words for DSH as she slapped the department with a $17,400 fine. A previous state appellate court ruling gave DSH 60 days to ensure that Contra Costa detainees who are found mentally incompetent to stand trial receive mental health treatment. See: In re Loveton, 244 Cal. App. 4th 1025, 198 Cal.Rptr.3d 514 (Cal. Ct. App., 1st Dist. 2016). However, Judge Claire M. Maier found the department was frequently violating the mandate, and had been doing so for years.

“Having violated the standing order,” Judge Maier wrote, “the DSH also violated the constitutional due process rights of those defendants found incompetent to stand trial by failing to provide them timely competency restoration services.”

According to the East Bay Times, the judge’s sanctions resulted from a fine of $100 for every day a group of 29 detainees had to remain in jail past the 60-day deadline. See: Scott v. California Forensic Medical Group, Superior Court of Contra Costa County (CA), Case No. 5-140055-5. 

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Related legal cases

Scott v. California Forensic Medical Group

In re Loveton

Scott v. California Forensic Medical Group