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L.A. County supervisors order report on unexplained surge in mental competency cases

Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to commission a report by county law enforcement, public defenders and mental health workers on the dramatic, unexplained increase in mental competency cases the county has seen over the past five years.

The Los Angeles mental health court saw a more than threefold increase in referrals of cases to determine whether a criminal defendant was fit to stand trial from 2010 to 2015, growing from 944 to 3,528.

Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl called for a "root cause" analysis by county staff of the reasons behind the increase and the resources needed to deal with it after The Times reported on the issue.

Solis said county leaders need "more and better information, so that we can treat this population with compassion."

Defense attorneys who believe their clients are too mentally ill to understand the proceedings against them and aid in their own defense can request a competency evaluation and hearing.

Criminal defendants in misdemeanor cases and most felony cases are sent to the mental health court's Department 95 for those hearings. Court officials said they are unable to explain the dramatic increase in recent years.

Some attributed part of the growth to greater awareness of mental illness, leading to more defendants being identified as needing competency screening.

But others said they believe it's the result of strained resources in the mental health system.

Brittney Weissman, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Los Angeles County Council, said that because state mental health funding is designated primarily for outpatient treatment, there is a shortage of facilities for people with severe mental illness who need inpatient care. 

Many seriously ill people, Weissman said, "revolve through short-term hospitalizations and multiple incarcerations, victimization, homelessness and death as they remain unable to sustain engagement with treatment" and "may contribute most significantly to the uptick in competency cases."

She asked that the county's review include a look at the number of beds available for different types of care. 

The supervisors voted unanimously to direct the county's chief executive officer, district attorney, public defender, alternate public defender, sheriff, mental health department and Office of Diversion and Re-Entry, as well as the mental health court, to report back in 60 days with their analysis of the causes of the increase and "recommendations on how to best serve those who are mentally incompetent to stand trial."

Twitter: @sewella

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