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It's been more than two months since a Sonoma County judge ordered Julia Franzen of Sebastopol to be committed to Napa State Hospital.

The 24-year-old woman was arrested in February on suspicion of stabbing her mother to death. She's since been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and deemed unable to assist in her own defense.

Yet she remains in the county jail, waiting for the state to retrieve her, while the chronic mental illness that some say led her to kill her mother and blurt out bizarre courtroom statements causes her to pull out clumps of her own hair.

"She belongs in a hospital, not in a jail," said her lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Tyler Hicks.

Franzen's situation is not unusual these days. Sonoma County jail officials say a lack of bed space at the state's mental hospitals is increasing the lag time between when an inmate is committed to an institution and when they are actually picked up.

The delays have increased over the past year from a maximum of about two months to more than three months, said Lt. Mike Toby, who supervises the jail's three mental health units.

One mentally ill person has been waiting in the jail since April, Toby said.

It's not good for the inmates, who need treatment before they can proceed with their criminal cases, but it's also an added expense for the county which must pay for medication and enhanced supervision, Toby said.

The exact cost was not available.

"It does seem to have gotten longer now," Toby said. "Obviously, we don't want to see them sit here."

Concern that the situation is worsening sparked a recent flurry of legal filings from the County Counsel's Office and individual attorneys like Hicks, seeking to force the state to comply with court orders.

Since May, the county has asked the state to appear in about a dozen cases to explain why it hasn't picked up inmates who have been deemed incompetent and ordered to undergo treatment at a mental hospital, Deputy County Counsel Joshua Myers said.

"They are supposed to transfer that patient forthwith," Myers said. "They haven't done that."

The clock is ticking on another 25 inmates who have more recently been ordered to be committed, Toby said.

In each case, criminal proceedings have been suspended until the state can restore mental competence. If the suspects are someday deemed fit, they can be brought back to Sonoma County to answer charges or face trial.

"The state hospital has all the levels of services they need to be restored to competency ... so they can get through the rest of the criminal process," Toby said.

The problem isn't limited to Sonoma County. The lack of bed space is causing statewide delays, said Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker, who has heard from counterparts in other counties.

He said the issue has been around for years but has never been quite so bad.

"It's been slowly building," said Walker, the head of adult detention. "The state just does not have room. It has become increasingly difficult to get inmates out of the county who have been committed."

Of the 1,050 total men and women in the county jail, about 30 percent require some degree of mental health supervision. Many are housed in one of three mental health units and a portion are awaiting transport to state hospitals.

They are overseen by jail psychiatrists, who dispense medication and offer counseling, as well as specially trained correctional deputies, Walker said.

But such treatment is more about keeping them stable than curing their mental illness, jail staff said.

In a tour of the jail's mental health units Wednesday, inmates temporarily confined to their cells stared out through small windows while a few yelled out incoherently. Many are permitted to roam sparsely furnished common areas, watch TV, listen to music or read books.

"We do the most we can while they are here," Walker said. "But this is a different environment than a hospital."

A spokesman for the Department of State Hospitals, Ken August, said in an email Wednesday that transfer time varies based on several factors including available beds, receipt of complete admissions packets and coordination of transportation. He did not respond to questions about a statewide delay.

"The Department of State Hospitals cannot admit a patient into a program until there is space available," he said in the email. "The average length of stay ... is about 90 days."

Meanwhile, patients including Franzen continue to wait. She is accused of killing 59-year-old Nancy Franzen Feb. 4 at their Tocchini Road house. Neighbors reported her walking outside with a knife in her bloody hand, saying she killed someone.

After a series of court hearings in which she blurted out bizarre statements and appeared to be talking to herself, Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite ordered her on May 23 to be sent to Napa State Hospital.

She has been in the jail's mental health unit ever since. A person familiar with the case said her mental condition has caused her to pull out much of her own hair.

If state officials at an Aug. 13 hearing can't offer a good reason for not accepting her into the mental hospital, they could be held in contempt of court.

But Jeff Mitchell, a deputy public defender with a client deemed ordered to Napa State, said what usually happens is the state transfers the patient just before it gets to that stage.

He said he hasn't seen delays this long in his nearly 20 years at the Public Defender's Office.

"Over time and especially recently the delays have gotten longer and longer," he said.

Mental health advocates said the lag time amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for those who have not been convicted of any crime.

Rosemary Milbrath, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Sonoma County, said it places jail administrators and correctional deputies in the role of de facto mental health providers.

"It behooves us to find a humane solution to the problem and get these patients into a medical setting," Milbrath said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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