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    How the mentally disabled can languish in CA jails


    Emily Hoeven  EMILY HOEVEN

    For almost nine years, Lorenzo Mays disappeared inside Sacramento County jail, charged with a murder he insists he didn’t commit.

    During that time, Mays was never brought to trial. He wasn’t allowed to leave. Instead, he remained in a kind of legal limbo, with most of his years spent in solitary confinement.

    The reason? Judges and psychologists determined that his cognitive issues and mental illness meant he couldn’t understand court proceedings well enough to be considered competent to stand trial. But they didn’t know what else to do with him.

    In the latest installment in CalMatters’ series “On the edge: Can California heal its mental health system?” Jocelyn delves into Mays’ case and what it reveals about the way people with mental and cognitive disabilities are treated within the state’s jails.

    The statistics are worrisome. While Mays’ case stands out for the sheer length of time he was stuck, California’s jails are full of people with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities.

    As of November, 1,446 people in California jails were deemed incompetent to stand trial due to mental illness and waiting to be placed in a state mental hospital, according to state data. That number has almost quadrupled in less than a decade and does not account for people, like Mays, who are found incompetent due to their intellectual disabilities.

    To unravel Mays’ yearslong ordeal, Jocelyn reviewed nearly 5,000 pages of court and jail medical records and interviewed state and local officials and legal experts, as well as Mays and people close to him. While the state Department of Developmental Services told her Mays’ case is “very unique,” many advocates disagreed.

    In 2018, Mays became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit the Prison Law Office and Disability Rights California brought against Sacramento County. In response to the ensuing settlement, county supervisors voted earlier this month to reduce the overall jail population and to support a $450 million proposal for the construction of a new jail building to alleviate overcrowding and address mental health concerns.

    Mays, now nearly 40 years old, is out of jail — having been sent to a group home near Sacramento earlier this year. The murder trial never happened.

    It isn’t just people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities who are stuck in California jails: A CalMatters investigation last year found that an astonishing 44,241 people — or three-quarters of all inmates — were being held in county jails without being convicted or sentenced for a crime. At least 1,317 people had been waiting for more than three years, and 332 had been waiting for longer than five years. One man in a Fresno County jail had been awaiting trial for nearly 12 years.

    Meanwhile, the state prison system is beset with its own challenges. One in three California prisoners has a diagnosed mental illness, and the state’s solution for some has been to move them around. After the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation transferred one severely mentally ill inmate 39 times between 2016 and 2020, he committed suicide in Kern Valley State Prison, another CalMatters investigation found. Indeed, California moved mentally ill prisoners three times more often on average than other prisoners from 2016 to 2021, according to a CalMatters analysis of state prison data.


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