Earlier this year, an article in the Santa Barbara Independent brought light to an issue that has been plaguing California’s jails for some time. According to the piece in the Independent, the Santa Barbara County Jail is overrun with inmates who are stuck there because they’re not competent to stand trial. Mental health advocates from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) were the first to raise the alarm about the situation.
Typically, if a person who is facing charges for a felony were found to be incompetent to stand trial, they would be sent to a state psychiatric hospital for treatment. However, at the time the Santa Barbara Independent article was written, there were 26 such inmates in the Santa Barbara County Jail.
Those inmates had not been sent to state psychiatric hospitals for treatment because the waitlists for those facilities were longer than the sentences the inmates would endure if they were tried and found guilty of the charges they were facing.
NAMI is pushing for state funding to provide more spaces in treatment facilities for those who are incompetent to stand trial in Santa Barbara County. Only time will tell if NAMI’s efforts to remove mentally ill inmates from jail and secure proper care for them will be successful.
What Are the Steps for Declaring Someone Incompetent to Stand Trial in California?
The US Constitution guarantees people in the United States the right to a fair trial. However, if a person doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand the trial process, or assist their attorney in preparing their case, there’s nothing fair about that. That’s why California has mental competency laws in place to protect people who don’t have the mental capacity to stand trial or those who have a mental illness that would prevent them from receiving a fair day in court.
Successfully completing the process for declaring a person incompetent to stand trial in California isn’t easy, but if a person meets the criteria, and has the help of an experienced attorney, it is possible. The following are the steps for declaring someone incompetent to stand trial in California:
- Judge Questions Mental Competency – The process for declaring a person incompetent to stand trial starts with the judge or the person’s legal representation questioning the person's mental competency. When judges question a person’s mental competency, the person’s attorney is asked to give their opinion on the matter. If a judge’s doubts about a person's mental competency aren’t disproven by the person’s attorney, a competency hearing will be held.
- Legal Representation Questions Mental Competency – If a person’s lawyer question’s their own client’s mental competency, the lawyer must provide substantial evidence to support the claim. If a person’s lawyer provides enough evidence to support their claim that their client is incompetent to stand trial, a competency hearing will be held.
- Competency Hearing – This is a hearing that is held to determine a person’s mental competency to stand trial. The defense or the prosecution can request that the hearing be held before a jury. Otherwise, the hearing will not include a jury. As part of the hearing, the court will appoint a psychologist or psychiatrist to examine the person’s mental competency. In addition, in some instances, the court will appoint a developmental disability expert to evaluate the person as well. The hearing is treated as a civil proceeding (civil proceedings have a lower burden of proof than criminal proceedings). One side will attempt to prove that the person is mentally competent to stand trial and the other side will try to disprove that claim.
If the competency hearing results in a person being found to be competent to stand trial, the trial will go on as planned. If the hearing results in a person being found to be incompetent to stand trial, the trial will be suspended. In addition, the court will likely order one of the following:
- The person is committed to a secure mental hospital
- The person is committed to an approved treatment facility (which can include county jail)
- The person agrees to participate in an outpatient treatment program
Discuss Your Situation with Our Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyers Today
Everyone deserves a fair trial, and at Appel & Morse, our attorneys and our firm won’t stand for anything less. Our top priorities are always protecting our clients and doing what is in their best interests.
In some cases, that means working to have our client’s charges reduced or dismissed. In other instances, our client may not be fit to stand trial. In those situations, we need to do whatever’s necessary within the confines of the law to ensure that they don’t have to participate in what would be an unfair trial. Our experienced criminal defense lawyers know how to get that done, and our firm has a long history of helping clients overcome similar challenges.
To learn more about the work we’ve done to help clients overcome challenging circumstances, read our clients’ testimonials.
If you’d like to discuss your situation with our experienced criminal defense attorneys in Santa Barbara, give us a call at (805) 467-6060 or contact us online today for a free, no-obligation consultation. We are available during regular business hours, evenings, and weekends.