California Court Rejects the State's Prolonged Detention of People with Psychiatric and Intellectual Disabilities in County Jails

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SAN FRANCISCO – The California Court of Appeal has ruled that the state’s prolonged detention of people who have been declared incompetent to stand trial due to psychiatric or intellectual disability violates their right to due process. This has profound implications for the thousands of people who languish in county jails every year because they cannot stand trial or pursue their defense without adequate treatment for their disabilities.

“The court recognized that California cannot continue to warehouse people in jail for months at a time while it denies them both their right to a trial and the mental health treatment they need to become competent to have a trial,” said Michael Risher, counsel for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “These are people who have not been convicted of any crime and cannot even demand a trial because of their condition. The ruling affirms that they must have access to prompt treatment, and it highlights the need for the Legislature to address the root causes of this crisis once and for all.”

The lawsuit, Stiavetti v. Clendenin, was filed in 2015 against California’s Department of State Hospitals (DSH) and Department of Developmental Services (DDS). It was brought on behalf of the family members of people who had endured prolonged incarceration in California county jails despite having been declared incompetent to stand trial.

According to the Court of Appeal’s June 15 ruling, this issue will only be resolved if the state of California takes meaningful new action to stop the unconstitutional delays in providing mental health treatment to people deemed incompetent to stand trial. The ruling states that the continuing delays demonstrate that “existing policy mechanisms alone cannot cure the problem, and we must not allow systematic violations of due process rights of these vulnerable defendants to continue, while hoping that defendants’ efforts will eventually improve the situation.”

The Court emphasized that, “Despite recent legislative action and other initiatives discussed in this opinion, too many of these defendants’ due process rights continue to be violated due to lengthy waits in county jails.”

The ruling upholds a March 2019 superior court judgment which ruled that the state of California had “systematically failed to provide due process” to incompetent defendants and must admit them for treatment within 28 days of receiving the relevant documents from the court.

“This ruling is a step in the right direction, and our family is very grateful,” said plaintiff Stephanie Stiavetti, whose brother suffered abuse in jail while he endured weeks of delay in being transferred to DSH for treatment. “The state needs to recognize that there are far too many mental health patients suffering in jails, lost in a system that is rife with abuse and ill-prepared to care for them. Immediate legislation is needed to ensure that people with mental health disorders receive treatment promptly and outside of the jail system.”

Plaintiffs sought to compel the state to reduce the lengthy delays in transfer to DSH and DDS. Under state and federal law, people who lack the ability to understand the nature of criminal court proceedings cannot be tried or sentenced. They must be transferred out of jail in a timely manner so that they can be evaluated and treated. But in California, people deemed incompetent to stand trial can languish in jail for months, sometimes for over a year, risking their health and wellbeing. This also harms crime victims by delaying the resolution of criminal cases.

According to the most recently available data, approximately 4,000 people per year are incarcerated in county jails, declared incompetent to stand trial, and placed on a waitlist for admission to DSH and DDS.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the waitlist for admission to DSH soared to over 1600 people—a 500% increase since 2013.

“This is an important breakthrough for thousands of people with mental illness and developmental disabilities in California jails, whose due process rights are being systematically violated,” said Laura Kabler Oswell, partner at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, co-counsel with the ACLU. “We are very pleased that the Court of Appeal upheld Judge Smith’s earlier ruling affirming those rights, and we look forward to working with the state to ensure these individuals get the care they need.”

Plaintiffs are represented by Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.


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