Rise in Mental Competency to Stand Trial Cases May be a Catalyst for Justice and Change Los Angeles CAL.A. County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuel recently proposed commissioning an analysis to understand why competency to stand trial hearings almost tripled from 2010 to 2015. In just one year, 2014 to 2015, cases rose by nearly 50%. Solis stated that they need to analyze the situation in order to treat mentally ill people with more compassion.

However, despite her well-meaning words, nothing would change if it weren’t for the enormous price tag these competency hearings add to the burden of cycling our mental patients through the criminal justice system repeatedly and housing them in jail and prison rather than giving them the help they so desperately need. Competency hearings, which entail expert testimony from psychiatrists and other expenses and then treating inmates who are deemed incompetent until they are competent to stand trial costs us millions of dollars every single year.

What is a Competency Hearing

A competency hearing under California Penal Code §1638 is a civil procedure to determine if a defendant has a mental disorder or developmental disability which renders him or her

  • Unable to understand the nature of the proceedings or
  • Unable to assist his/ her defense attorney in presenting a defense to the charges in a rational manner.

Either of these conditions would render a defendant incompetent to stand trial. The competency hearing can be initiated by the defendant’s attorney filing a motion or by the presiding judge in a legal action who questions the mental capacity of the defendant.

If a defendant is deemed to be incompetent at the competency hearing what happens next will depend on the severity of the incompetence diagnosis and on the crime the defendant is charged with. The defendant may be

  • Delivered by the sheriff to a state mental hospital for treatment
  • Taken to another treatment facility, including a jail facility
  • Placed on outpatient status

The trial will not proceed until the defendant is found to be competent as a result of treatment. It is important to distinguish between incompetent to stand trial (IST) and not guilty by reason of insanity. IST means that a defendant cannot participate in his or her own defense or understand the charges or consequences.  

Not guilty by reason of insanity is a plea entered at the arraignment or at trial that the defendant was insane therefore incapable of understanding the difference between right and wrong during the commission of a crime. If a jury finds that you were legally insane when you committed a crime you cannot be convicted of that crime but will instead be committed to a state mental asylum until you are sane, if ever.

A Defendant With IST Status Has Not Been Convicted of a Crime

It is very important to remember that somebody who is IST is being remanded to custody without being convicted of a crime. After the competency hearing, the defendant is usually housed in a jail and given treatment until deemed competent. The next competency hearing is supposed to be in 90 days.

Defendants who are supposed to be treated in state hospitals often have to wait in jail until a bed opens up. More often than not the 90-day deadline to report to the court on the competency of the defendant is missed because our system is overwhelmed. Moreover, those who are supposed to receive treatment in jail will almost certainly receive substandard care if they receive any treatment at all.

The jail environment itself is likely to make somebody with a mental illness sicker, and during the time they are languishing in jail and subjected to brutal conditions their Sixth Amendment Right to a speedy trial is frequently being violated. For those inmates with serious mental illness, it could be argued that being in jail or prison also violates their Eighth Amendment Right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.

What is Being in Jail or Prison Like for Someone Who is Mentally Ill?

According to a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics report well over half of the inmates in our nation’s jails and prisons, both state and federal, are mentally ill. For those with serious conditions such as schizophrenia which cause them to be paranoid, delusional, and out of touch with reality the jail or prison chain of authority is almost certainly a guarantee that the inmate will have to endure harsh punishment as a result of not being able to understand and comply with orders from prison guards. Mentally ill inmates have been

  • Beaten,
  • Tased,
  • Denied, or too sick to partake of food and water,
  • Denied, or too sick to use adequate hygiene,
  • Placed in restraints,
  • Denied medical attention, and
  • Placed in solitary confinement, sometimes for months.

The mentally ill are subjected to harsh punishment for behavior which is symptomatic of their illness. Many times they are incapable of understanding and complying with orders from prison guards who have no training in how to deal with their symptoms.

Shane Bauer, a senior reporter for Mother Jones, took a job as a prison guard and spent four months working at a Corrections Corporation of America prison in Louisiana in order to understand what is going on in privatized prisons and how inmates are treated. You can access the lengthy article he wrote here. According to Bauer’s shocking report, CCA under staffs its prisons and it under-trains and underpays its guards.

You could rationalize that California isn’t Louisiana, however, California has to farm inmates out to other states because of the federal mandate to eliminate overcrowding, and we also have privately owned jails and prisons, some of which are owned by CCA. For somebody who is mentally ill, being housed in a jail or prison with violent inmates and guards who are trained to ignore shankings and other violence between inmates instead of stopping it, being in jail or prison could be a death sentence.

There are many other scenarios that go on in prisons where mentally ill people are in danger because of their illness, not from misbehaving or consciously breaking any rules. It almost goes without saying that due to the high percentage of inmates who are mentally ill, nobody gets adequate treatment for their mental illness if they are treated at all while incarcerated.

The Current Nationwide Practice of Housing Mental Patients In Jails and Prisons Must Stop!

People who are mentally ill often wind up incarcerated because of behavior which is symptomatic of their illness. For instance, anybody who has worked in a convalescent home with elderly patients who suffer from dementia grows accustomed to seeing some patients expose themselves because of their impaired mental capacity. Somebody who is mentally ill and homeless who exposes their self because of their dementia is guilty of a serious sex crime under California Penal Code §314. A second offense is a felony crime. There are many other sick behaviors that will land a mentally ill person in jail.

People who suffer from mental illness need low-income housing and in some cases, they need to be housed in facilities with trained staff to supervise them and help them to function and take their medication. This is the solution to our problem of an upsurge in competency to stand trial hearings, to provide community services and housing to mental patients who live on the street. It doesn’t require commissioning a costly analysis to come to this conclusion. All it takes is a little common sense: if somebody is sick and unable to function normally you don’t ignore their plight and leave them to live on the street or throw them in jail for being sick!

However, the “analysis” of why we have an upsurge in IST hearings may give Supervisors concrete evidence showing exactly how much money we are spending cycling mentally ill people through the criminal justice system. Taking care of our mentally ill by offering them affordable housing and support services is almost certainly cheaper, and it is the right thing to do.

Contact Sehat Law if You or Somebody You Love Who is Mentally Ill Needs Legal Help

If you or somebody you love is mentally ill and has been placed under arrest, your rights are almost certainly being violated. Especially if you are being denied medication and mental health treatment while in jail, or if you have been

  • Beaten
  • Tased
  • Placed in solitary confinement
  • Forced to wait indefinitely to be deemed competent to stand trial

It is a sad reality that people who are severely mentally ill are vulnerable to civil rights abuses, and often don’t even understand what is going on or that their constitutional rights are being violated. If you suspect that your rights or somebody you love’s rights are being violated while in jail or prison, you need to talk with an experienced Civil Rights litigation attorney immediately.

Hello, my name is Cameron Sehat. My life’s passion is standing up for the marginalized and oppressed and enforcing the rights guaranteed to all by our United States Constitution. I am especially appalled by the current nationwide practice of housing those among us who have been rendered vulnerable by a mental illness in jails and prisons.

If you or somebody you love is in jail and you are not sure whether your rights are being violated, give Sehat law a call at (855) 468-5291 today. I assure you that our dedicated staff of legal professionals will listen to your story and advise you on whether you have legal standing to file a complaint in civil court. Together we can force our state and the federal government to end the draconian practice of incarcerating people who are incapable of functioning normally in society because they are mentally ill.