CA Appeals Court Tells State Courts They Can’t Continue to ‘Warehouse’ Thousands of Disabled Defendants in Jails, ACLU Announces


The Vanguard Staff

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The state of California cannot continue to “warehouse” thousands of people awaiting trial for months, and sometimes years in county jails, according to a ruling from the California Court of Appeals, said the ACLU Foundation of Northern California Wednesday.

The ACLU said the court decided that the “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 could have a significant implications for what the ACLU claims are thousands of people who are deemed incompetent to stand trial but then “languish” in county jails.

The ACLU said an estimated 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. In the year of COVID, and courts barely functioning, it’s only gotten worse.

“The court recognized that California cannot continue to warehouse people in jails 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.”

The ACLU argued that “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 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, according to the Court of Appeal’s June 15 ruling.

“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,” noted the court.

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.

The decision stems from an ACLU lawsuit, Stiavetti v. Clendenin, filed in 2015 against California’s Department of State Hospitals (DSH) and Department of Developmental Services (DDS). The legal action came from family members of people who had endured prolonged incarceration in county jails, despite having been declared incompetent to stand trial.

“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,” she said.

The ACLU said 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.

The ACLU added that they must be transferred out of jail in a timely manner so that they can be evaluated and treated.

But in California, the ACLU noted people deemed incompetent to stand trial can languish in jail for months, sometimes for over a year, risking their health and wellbeing.

“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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