California Supreme Court Rules that the State Must Address the Prolonged Detention in County Jails of Defendants Deemed Incompetent to Stand Trial

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The California Supreme Court today denied the state of California’s request for review of a June 2021 Court of Appeal ruling in Stiavetti v. Clendenin, handing down a major victory for the thousands of people who languish in California county jails every year because they have been deemed incompetent to stand trial (IST) without adequate treatment for their psychiatric or intellectual disabilities.

The Supreme Court’s ruling means that California will now have to comply with a March 2019 Superior Court judgment, which said that the state had “systematically failed to provide due process” to IST patients and that it must admit them for treatment within 28 days of receiving the relevant documents from the court.

According to the most recently available data, approximately 4,000 people per year are incarcerated in California county jails, declared IST, and placed on a waitlist for admission to California’s Department of State Hospitals (DSH) and Department of Developmental Services (DDS). But the ruling comes at a significant moment of crisis: the waitlist for IST admission to DSH has soared exponentially. In July 2013, there were 262 people on the admission waitlist. By February 2021, there were 1,687—a 500% increase in less than eight years.

“The state of California has not done all it can do to mitigate this crisis, and the courts have recognized that,” said Michael Risher, counsel with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “State officials cannot build their way out of the state hospital bed shortage, or keep putting people away in locked facilities. Research shows that outpatient treatment is just as effective and far less expensive than inpatient treatment. The state must emphasize community-based treatment in order to get people the treatment they need.”

“On behalf of our clients, we are thrilled that the Supreme Court has decided to let the well-reasoned decision of the Court of Appeal stand,” said Laura Kabler Oswell, partner at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, co-counsel with the ACLU. “This is an important vindication of the constitutional rights of people declared incompetent to stand trial awaiting treatment in California jails.”

The lawsuit, Stiavetti v. Clendenin, was filed in 2015 against DSH and 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 IST.

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

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