Lawsuit targets delays in competency evaluation and restoration services

empty jail cell with cot, shelves, bright light viewed through bars
News from California

The ACLU of Northern California and Sullivan and Cromwell filed a lawsuit in state court July 29, accusing the state of California of systematically violating the rights of pre-trial detainees.

Under federal and California law, states must timely evaluate criminal defendants when there are questions as to their capacity to stand trial. If declared “incompetent,” the state is mandated to promptly provide treatment services, in order to restore the individual to a place where he or she can stand trial, or if not, be civilly committed.

While waiting for such services in California, the defendants languish in county jails for months and even years, the lawsuit asserts.

“These delays are cruel and unconstitutional, and warehousing these defendants in jail does great harm to individuals and families across California,” said Michael Risher, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a news release.

As of February 9, 2015, 365 incompetent defendants were awaiting admission to the Department of State Hospitals for competency evaluations. For the previous 25 people civilly admitted, the average wait time was more than 75 days.

In addition, at least 52 defendants are awaiting court-ordered restoration services. Eleven of these individuals have been waiting for longer than 90 days.

In the meantime, the lawsuit contends, they are isolated in county jails, without the services to help them reintegrate into society.

“Those jails are rarely, if ever, equipped to teach individuals with mental illness or to care for individuals with developmental disabilities,” the lawsuit states. “Incompetent defendants are often held in solitary confinement because of their mental condition – a situation that often exacerbates the prisoner’s mental conditions, causes deterioration of their mental health, and decreases the chances that they will achieve competency to proceed with their cases in a timely manner.

‘In addition, incompetent defendants’ mental conditions sometimes lead to physical conflict with jail personnel, endangering the safety of both jail staff and the inmates and sometimes leading to additional criminal charges.”

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of Alameda County, asserts violations of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, as well as the state due process and speedy trial laws.

The Department of State Hospitals, which oversees defendants with mental illnesses, and the Department of Developmental Services, which oversees defendants with developmental disabilities, are listed as defendants.