How the mentally disabled can languish in California jails

Your guide to California policy and politics
Emily Hoeven BY Emily Hoeven December 15, 2022
Presented by Earthjustice, Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Southern California Gas Company

How the mentally disabled can languish in California jails

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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1 Hurtado-Shepard race to get recount

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado speaks at a press conference where she presented a $100 million check to repair The Friant-Kern Canal near Terra Bella on Oct. 14, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
State Sen. Melissa Hurtado presents a $100 million check to repair The Friant-Kern Canal near Terra Bella on Oct. 14, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

The secretary of state is set to certify by Friday the final results from California’s Nov. 8 election — but matters won’t end then. Republican David Shepard said Wednesday that he’s formally requested a recount in his state Senate race against Democratic incumbent Melissa Hurtado of Bakersfield, who was sworn into office last weekend after eking out a 20-vote lead. “Given some procedural irregularities that our campaign has observed, I believe that a recount is necessary,” Shepard said in a statement, adding, “It is imperative that every legally cast vote be counted.” A spokesperson for Hurtado’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

  • It is unclear how long the recount process — which will happen in Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties — will take. Meanwhile, the Kern County elections office petitioned a court Monday, asking it for permission to count 10 recently discovered unopened eligible mail-in ballots, five of which encompass the Hurtado-Shepard race, the Bakersfield Californian reports.
  • At least one sworn-in state lawmaker has been removed from office after a recount, state historian Alex Vassar told the Central Valley news outlet GV Wire: In December 1980, Republican Adrian Fondse was sworn into the state Assembly, only to be removed a month later after a recount put Democrat Patrick Johnston in the lead.

2022 Election

Latest coverage of the 2022 general election in California

In other Capitol news: In unusually frank remarks made to ABC News during his visit to the California-Mexico border this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned that California isn’t equipped to handle a likely surge of immigrants after the federal government ends Title 42, a pandemic policy that allowed U.S. officials to turn migrants away at the border. “The federal government is sending more and more flights and more and more buses directly here to California because this state is doing what no other state’s doing … and the more we do, the burden is placed disproportionate on us,” Newsom said. “We’re already at capacity at nine of our sites. We can’t continue to fund all of these sites because of the budgetary pressures now being placed on this state and the offsetting issues that I have to address.” He added, “What we’ve got right now is not working and is about to break in a post-42 world unless we take some responsibility and ownership.”

And a law Newsom recently signed requiring companies to strengthen online youth privacy protections was hit by a Wednesday lawsuit from the tech industry group NetChoice, the Washington Post reports. NetChoice said the law violates the First Amendment and would result in “over-moderation” of online content, while Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office said it looks forward to “defending this important children’s safety law in court.”

2 California education updates

Allison Leggett, a fourth-year student at Charles Drew University, on campus in the Watts region of Los Angeles on Dec. 7, 2022. Photo by Lauren Justice for Cal Matters
Allison Leggett, a fourth-year student at Charles Drew University, on campus in the Watts region of Los Angeles on Dec. 7, 2022. Photo by Lauren Justice for Cal Matters

Let’s dive into the latest California education news — there’s a lot to catch up on:

  • Charles Drew University, California’s only historically Black college, is set to launch its own medical school next year with the aim of training more culturally competent doctors and improving care in underserved communities, Alyssa Story reports for CalMatters’ College Journalism Network. The Legislature set aside $50 million to help support the new program, which many hope will grow the state’s ranks of Black doctors and improve health outcomes for people of color. A 2020 study, for example, found that Black infant mortality in the first year of life is halved when the patient treated by a Black physician. But in California, Black doctors have for decades made up around 3% of the state’s total physicians. 
  • As the strike by tens of thousands of University of California academic workers stretches into its fifth week, protesters are bringing their fury — and calls for higher wages and benefits — directly to UC leadership through civil disobedience and other tactics that go well beyond standard picketing, CalMatters’ Mikhail Zinshteyn reports. The strategy has resulted in dozens of graduate workers getting arrested and cited, including at an hours-long disruption of the UC regents’ Wednesday meeting at UCLA. “It’s clear that with all our striking and protesting and picketing the university is just not listening to our demands, and they’re not responding,” Omar Sohail, a graduate student who was arrested Wednesday on charges of trespassing and unlawful assembly, told Mikhail. “We do this because we feel like we’re powerless … and all we have is our bodies and our ability to disrupt a public meeting.” (Despite the delays, the UC regents voted Wednesday to allow UCLA to leave the Pac-12 Conference and join the Big Ten.)
  • Things are going from bad to worse at the embattled California State University system, where numerous sexual harassment and abuse cases and questionable contract provisions have come under scrutiny in the wake of the chancellor’s February resignation following allegations he mishandled sexual harassment claims against a former colleague. The latest scandals: The president of Chico State apologized Tuesday for her administration’s handling of a professor’s affair with a graduate student and his alleged threats to shoot two colleagues who helped investigate him, EdSource reports. And the Los Angeles Times published an investigation Wednesday that found that CSU’s prestigious Maritime Academy has engendered a climate of widespread sexual misconduct, racism and harassment toward women and transgender and nonbinary students.

3 State approves $3B for EV infrastructure

An electric vehicle charging station in Millbrae. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
An electric vehicle charges at a station in Millbrae. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

From CalMatters environment reporter Nadia Lopez: California energy officials on Wednesday approved a $2.9 billion plan to construct 90,000 new charging stations and create other zero-emission incentives to help accelerate the transition to electric vehicles and meet the state’s clean-energy goals.

The new $2.39 billion funding stream approved by the California Energy Commission is on top of $367.2 million previously allocated during the past two budget cycles and $142.8 million already in the fund for the program. The money comes from Newsom’s $54 billion climate package, which includes $10 billion for electric vehicle incentives and charging infrastructure. About $384 million comes from the federal government.

  • Energy Commissioner Patty Monahan: “This plan is the biggest investment that any state has ever proposed for the build out of zero emission vehicle infrastructure. It’s unprecedented in its scale and it really is this golden moment in California, to be able to show the world how we can zero-out pollution from transportation.” 
  • Newsom, who vehemently opposed a November ballot measure that would have raised taxes on the wealthy to help fund electric vehicle programs, applauded the vote: “We are transforming transportation in California and scaling climate action in ways only California can — with jobs, innovation and health at the heart of our efforts,” he said in a statement

The funds will be spent over the next four years and will primarily go towards charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, with $1.7 billion set aside for zero-emission vans, buses and other medium and heavy-duty trucks and $900 million for electric cars. Half of the money will go to low-income, disadvantaged communities. The funds will also be used to help auto manufacturers speed up deployment of electric models, produce low-carbon fuels and spur workforce development, among other programs. 

  • The plan also aims to construct about 170,000 new chargers to help meet the state’s mandate of 250,000 zero-emission vehicle chargers by 2025. Currently, there are about 80,000 public chargers statewide, with about another 17,000 on the way, according to state data. 
  • Costs to install charging stations depend on how powerful they are. Constructing a standard level 2 charger could cost between $7,000 to $11,000, while direct fast charging ranges from $100,000 to $120,000 per charger.

In other big environmental news: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — which serves 19 million people — declared a regional drought emergency Wednesday and urged water agencies to immediately reduce their use of imported supplies. As CalMatters has previously reported, nearly 20% of urban water agencies expect they won’t have enough water to meet demand next year, with some Southern California providers considering a ban on all outdoor watering.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Multiple efforts to allow the state Legislature’s employees to unionize have failed. Could that change with a new class of lawmakers?

Time to overhaul California’s antiquated higher education plan: The state’s 1960 blueprint for higher education is elitist, woefully outdated and doesn’t reflect new workforce realities, argues Carlos O. Cortez, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District.


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See you tomorrow


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