Crime & Justice

LA sees increase in people not competent to stand trial

L.A.'s jails have seen a surge in inmates with severe mental health issues.
L.A.'s jails have seen a surge in inmates with severe mental health issues.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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The sharp increase in severely mentally ill people showing up as defendants in L.A.'s criminal courts is on track to accelerate this year.

A draft report compiled by L.A. County's Health Agency, and made public Wednesday, determined L.A. County is on pace to see its number of defendants declared "incompetent to stand trial" due to mental illness grow by 1,000 cases in 2016 to about 4,500.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors commissioned the report, meant to explain the surge, after the county saw a 350 percent bump in such cases from 2010 to 2015. The board is expected to discuss the report in the coming weeks. 

Dr. Mark Ghaly, director of Community Health & Integrated Programs at the L.A. County Department of Health Services, said the increase is likely due to the county's rising homeless population, as well as better awareness among criminal justice system workers of mental health issues, and a rise in the use of methamphetamine.

The fundamental problem, however, he said, is community-based mental health services have failed to keep up with demand.

"This is a symptom, if you will, of a flailing justice system trying to masquerade as a mental health system," Ghaly said.

Between 1995 and 2010, California lost about 30 percent of its psychiatric hospital beds. 

In L.A. County, acute inpatient capacity has remained constant, and other less acute residential care has grown slightly, but "not at the rate or capacity needed."

The trend, the report noted, goes beyond Los Angeles County. Referrals for competency evaluations have increased statewide in Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. But the report noted that those states did not see the high numbers seen in L.A. County.

Nationally, it said, some 900,000 people "with serious mental illness" are admitted to jails in the United States every year, most of them awaiting trial on various charges. Jails are ill equipped to meet their needs, and they end up getting referred out to mental hospitals through programs designed for restoring mental health to the level where a person can meaningfully participate in their own legal defense.

The vast majority of competency cases are people who're charged with lower-level nuisance crimes, like vandalism, trespassing and resisting arrest. 

The report comes as L.A. County's criminal justice system is struggling with how to keep such individuals out of jail.

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department announced last week it will only arrest homeless individuals on low-level nuisance charges as a last resort to resolve a situation, and will attempt to divert them into services instead. 

Among the report's recommendations are increasing community services and figuring out ways to entice or compel people with severe mental health problems to use such services before they end up in jail.