Disasters Waiting to Happen: Incompetent Defendants in Jail

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Disasters Waiting to Happen: Incompetent Defendants in Jail

This is a huge problem with an unequipped system seeing everyone from

The mildly ill to the psychotic.

The justice system today is functioning as a mental health facility.

Jamie Fellner, Director of Human Rights Watch

Disasters Waiting to Happen: Incompetent Defendants in Jail

The Court Jester’s laser-like focus on the treatment of the mentally ill in America’s jails and prisons brings us to the verdant and parched land of vineyards, fruits and vegetables, beaches, mountains, deserts, smog and movie stars – North Dakota! Not quite. No one will mistake the Jester’s home state for the special place where all dreams and wishes are supposed to come true – except for people such as the mentally ill in California’s jails and prisons. This blog will respond to the article written by Joe Watson, entitled, “ACLU Sues California as Incompetent Defendants Wait for Mental Health Treatment.” It was published in the November 2016 issue of Prison Legal News. This story is about waiting. As the inimitable Tom Petty wrote, “The waiting is the hardest part.” For mentally ill defendants who are forced to remain in jails until a mental health facility can accept them for competency restoration treatment, the wait can be life threatening. Or lethal. Even though California law requires incompetent defendants to be sent to treatment programs within 35 days, waits of more than six months have been endured, with disastrous results. And simultaneous lawsuits filed in northern and southern California by attorneys from the ACLU.

These jail lawsuits are far from frivolous. One involved the tragic case of an intellectually disabled inmate who was delayed at Los Angeles County Jail, during which time he suffered multiple sexual assaults by another inmate. Worst of all, L.A. County Jail officials did nothing to help him cope with the rapes once they were uncovered. No therapy or support services. As a result, the young inmate’s mother declared that he “still suffers today.” The ACLU attorney representing the victim, Michaela Davis, provided her trenchant assessment of the terrible incident. “Jail is simply too dangerous for those most vulnerable defendants,” Davis said. “Oftentimes 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 put in solitary confinement, which only exacerbates their mental health condition.”

 One more example will suffice. After Rodney Bock was found in incompetent to stand trial, he was remanded to Sutter County Jail to await his mental health transfer. Bock was scheduled to be placed in Napa State Hospital. During the inevitable wait, the father of four’s precarious mental health deteriorated significantly. He “was unstable and unkempt, was talking to himself and to inanimate objects, and was refusing his medication.” While hallucinating, Rodney Bock was observed banging his head against his cell wall. It wasn’t long before he hung himself. Bock’s family, including his four daughters, sued Sutter County for his wrongful death, resulting in an $800,000 settlement. The family sued “in hopes of preventing other families from experiencing what we have.”

These were tragedies waiting to happen. Mental health advocate Dan Mistak was quoted by Joe Watson about the cases described here, and other similar ones. “There hasn’t been a safety net for these folks,” Mistak said. “And what’s happened is the jails have already stepped in, in order to make up for essentially what’s been a lack of these services everywhere else.” In response to the lawsuits, the California Department of Developmental Services and the Department of State Hospitals were given substantial funding by the state legislature for “hundreds of beds” in mental health treatment facilities, and funding for additional mental health services in county jails and local communities.

In the land of milk, honey and money, California put its stellar financial resources exactly where they needed to go, learning from the disasters that have taken the lives of inmates and scarred the lives of others. California has been able to do what few other states can do – subsidize a significant expansion of treatment opportunities for their vulnerable mentally ill population. Far less financially endowed states will be hard pressed to adequately respond to the tragic outcomes that inevitably follow significant delays in transporting incompetent defenders to competency restoration institutions. States can readily pass laws mandating reasonable waiting periods, but will they be able to deliver on their promises to transfer incompetent defendants within a constitutionally permissible time period? In America, a plethora of legal firms will be expectantly awaiting the answers to that question. And for the calls from distressed, anguished and grieving families of mentally ill inmates who languish in U.S. jails, waiting until they can wait no longer.

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