Report on increase in mental competency cases leaves many unanswered questions

Misdemeanor cases filed by city attorneys are driving a surge in competency cases that is overwhelming Los Angeles County's mental health court, according to a preliminary report released Wednesday.

The report suggests that the increase might be linked to the county’s rising homeless population, to criminal justice reform measures that may have resulted in fewer people participating in mandated treatment programs, and to the scarcity of psychiatric hospital beds.

But it leaves more questions than answers, and the authors say they need to do more work.

County supervisors ordered an analysis after The Times reported that the number of cases referred to mental health court to determine defendants' competency had swelled from 944 in 2010 to 3,528 in 2015.

It has strained the resources of the court system and led to a backlog of defendants being evaluated and sent to treatment facilities.

The report, released by a working group headed by the county's Office of Diversion and Reentry, found that while felony case referrals had increased some, the number of misdemeanor cases had skyrocketed.

In 2010, 225 of the competency referrals were misdemeanor cases filed by city attorneys; in 2015, the number was up to 2,178. It was unclear whether the increase resulted from city attorneys filing more misdemeanor cases or from more defendants being flagged by defense attorneys as potentially incompetent.

The report did not specify what the defendants had been charged with, but noted, "It is likely that a large number of these misdemeanor defendants are homeless, as many of their alleged misdemeanor crimes are often associated with homelessness, such as trespassing and other quality of life offenses."

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