Families accuse state of failing to hospitalize mentally ill defendants

An inmate sleeps in a room on the fourth floor of the medical unit of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. This area houses inmates with the highest level of need -- both psychiatric and medical.

An inmate sleeps in a room on the fourth floor of the medical unit of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. This area houses inmates with the highest level of need -- both psychiatric and medical.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Several family members of accused criminals who were held in jail after being ruled incompetent to stand trial are suing the state of California over lengthy delays in placing the defendants in state hospital beds.

Felony defendants who a judge deems incompetent because of mental illness or developmental disabilities are supposed to go to a state hospital for treatment and training until they can understand the charges against them and help an attorney prepare a defense.

But in practice, those suspects often spend months, or even years, waiting in jail for a hospital bed to open up, while the criminal proceedings are put on hold. State officials have contended that they don’t have the beds or money to house all the defendants who need treatment.


Family members represented by the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Alameda County Superior Court against the Department of State Hospitals and the Department of Developmental Services over the backlog, seeking a court order for the hospitals to speed up the process.

“While these vulnerable defendants wait for transfer to treatment facilities, they’re stuck in a tragic limbo,” ACLU of Northern California Senior Staff Atty. Michael Risher said in a statement. “They’re not receiving any treatment that would enable them to stand trial, and defendants often end up serving much more jail time than they would have under normal circumstances.”

The plaintiffs include Nancy Leiva, the mother of an intellectually disabled man who spent eight months in Los Angeles County jail waiting for a bed to open up at Porterville Developmental Center, the only state hospital set up to treat developmentally disabled defendants. During that time, the defendant -- whose name was withheld -- was raped multiple times by another inmate and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the suit alleged.

“It was anguishing for Ms. Leiva to witness her son incarcerated in the county jail, an environment she knew he was not equipped to handle,” the lawsuit complaint said.

The plaintiffs also include children of Rodney Bock, a mentally ill man who committed suicide by hanging himself while in Sutter County Jail while awaiting transfer to Napa State Hospital.

Jail staff failed to follow suicide prevention protocols despite the fact that Bock had been “banging himself against his cell door, yelling at or about people who did not exist, and describing various hallucinations,” the complaint said.


Sutter County agreed last year to pay Bock’s family $800,000 to settle a separate lawsuit brought by them.

Officials with the state hospital and developmental service departments said the agencies do not comment on pending litigation, but noted that the state has made “significant efforts” to improve the situation, including funding about 140 more state hospital beds for mentally ill defendants and 40 for those with developmental disabilities in this year’s budget.

The state also has encouraged counties to treat some of the defendants in local jails instead of sending them to hospitals -- including paying for the programs. This week, Los Angeles County officials announced that they would move forward with a plan to send some of the inmates to San Bernardino County’s West Valley Detention Center for treatment by a private contractor.

San Bernardino County had already launched its own in-jail treatment program, under which private contractor Liberty Health Care of California works with the inmates and the state picks up the bill.

Los Angeles County jails hold about 100 inmates who have been found incompetent and are awaiting transfer to state hospitals.

As many as 76 inmates from Los Angeles County will now be able to go to West Valley Detention Center for competency restoration services, county sheriff’s, mental health, and court officials said in a letter to the Board of Supervisors Monday. The more severely ill defendants will still be sent to state hospitals, they said.


ACLU attorney Risher said that people who are “so disabled that they cannot understand the criminal justice system or participate in their own defense” do not belong in jail.

But he added, “Given the existing backlogs, moving people with less-serious mental disorders who require less-intensive treatment promptly to a local treatment program is better than forcing them to languish in jail for months without treatment, at least as a short-term solution.”

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county government news.