Earlier this month, a Santa Barbara County inmate with serious mental health challenges and awaiting transfer to a state psychiatric hospital for treatment died at Santa Barbara’s Northern Branch Jail. According to mental-health advocates, the woman was just one of dozens of mentally ill inmates left to languish in county jail while awaiting transfers and treatment.
On September 9, 35-year-old Kristina Marie Chermak was found unresponsive in her cell by a nurse passing out medications. Efforts to resuscitate Chermak — arrested in Isla Vista on March 5 for burglary and possession of stolen property — were unsuccessful. According to Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Raquel Zick, the death did not appear suspicious, but the cause of death is not “immediately obvious.” An autopsy will be required.
Chermak was one of 38 individuals serving time in Santa Barbara County Jail facing such mental health challenges that they’d been deemed by the courts to be Incompetent to Stand Trial (IST) on felony charges, according to mental health advocates. Typically, such individuals are transferred to state psychiatric hospitals, where their competency is restored, but the waiting list has become so long that many inmates languish in their respective county jails, awaiting transfer and treatment. Of the IST inmates in county jail, one has been awaiting transfer since December 2021. Chermak had reportedly been in county jail seven months awaiting treatment.
In response to protracted treatment shortages in state psychiatric hospitals, jail officials had launched a competency restoration program of their own inside county jail. That program has 10 patients. Competency — not to be confused with sanity — indicates an ability to assist with one’s own defense. Those deemed IST cannot.
The waiting list for IST inmates to get into the Jail Based Competency Treatment Program is typically two weeks to two months, said Zick. By contrast, it typically takes three months to a year to get placed in a state hospital. Zick added that the jail-based program gets faster results. Competency, she said, is typically restored in the jail-based program in 51 days. In state hospitals, she said, the average is 90 days.
Santa Barbara judges like Brian Hill have noted in past interviews that many of the inmates found IST have been neither tried nor convicted, yet have spent more time inside county jail awaiting restoration of their competency than they would have had they served out the sentence for the crimes for which they’d been charged. This, said Hill in a previous interview, constituted a significant civil rights issue.