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L.A. County Sees Massive Spike In Cases Where Defendant Is 'Incompetent To Stand Trial'

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Twin Towers Correctional Facility. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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From 2010 to 2015, L.A. County courts have seen a 350 percent rise in cases where a defendant was deemed "incompetent to stand trial," reports KPCC. The L.A. County Health Agency studied this trend and wrote in a recently-released report that, if the rate continues, we should expect a total of 4,500 such cases this year.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, director of Community Health and Integrated Programs at the L.A. County Department of Health Services, told KPCC that the sharp rise is likely due to the growing homelessness population, a jump in the use of methamphetamines, and a growing awareness among criminal justice workers on what constitutes mental illness (meaning they're more likely to report mental illness).

In a similar report commissioned by County supervisors earlier this year, researchers also hypothesized that the cause may be linked to changes in state law, according to the L.A. Times. Specifically, they pointed at AB 109, which directed many non-violent felons to county justice systems rather than state systems, and Proposition 47, which turned many drug and property crimes into misdemeanors, rather than felonies.

AB 109 was signed by Governor Brown in 2011 to "reduce the number of inmates in the state's 33 prisons to 137.5 percent of original design capacity," according to a document from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Prop. 47 was approved by voters in 2014 with hopes of reducing the prison population, and diverting the saved costs to programs that would prevent recidivism and give support to victims. Detractors of Prop. 47 say that it has allowed suspects to get off easy with misdemeanor citations, which send them back into the streets (though this viewpoint is highly contested).

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According to KPCC, the great majority of incompetency cases come from lower-level crimes like vandalism and trespassing.

Whatever the reasons, the increase of defendants deemed incompetent highlights the weight that the public health system is shouldering. Ghaly says that the services have been failing to keep up with demand, leaving potential patients adrift. In California, the number of psychiatric beds has decreased by 30% from 1995 to 2010 (though, in the L.A. County, the number of beds has remained steady). Earlier this year, President Obama called for mental health reforms and pledged $500 million in new federal funding that will expand and improve mental health services nationwide.

The L.A. County Health Agency's report says that, nationally, about 900,000 people with mental illness are ushered into jails, where the resources aren't adequate enough to deal with psychiatric issues. The report recommends a increase in access to mental health services, and making a push to convince people with mental health issues to seek treatment early on.