SACRAMENTO - Many California courts fail to tell state justice officials when someone is determined to be mentally ill, undermining efforts to take guns away from potentially dangerous owners, according to a state audit released Tuesday.
State law requires courts to tell the Department of Justice when it makes certain mental health determinations.
The department uses that information as part of a program unique to California that seizes guns from people who are prohibited from having them, including the mentally ill.
Auditors discovered that many courts were not aware of the reporting requirements.
They surveyed 34 of California's 58 superior courts and found that only five knew of the law. The 34 courts collectively failed to report at least 2,300 mental health determinations over a three-year period ending in 2012.
Other courts only reported some of the information required by law.
The audit said San Bernardino County failed to report all 15 cases involving defendants deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial. Los Angeles County Superior Court failed to report nearly half the 27 cases reviewed by auditors, while Santa Clara County's largest courthouse made just nine of 15 required reports.
"We support the audit's findings relative to our court and have instituted new procedures to help ensure we comply with our reporting requirements," Santa Clara County court spokesman Joe Macaluso said in an email to NBC Bay Area on Wednesday. "Meeting our obligations is terribly difficult in view of the fiscal reductions. We have 200 fewer staff since 2008 and it is having an unfortunate impact."
Courts are required to report the information immediately, but auditors found some took up to seven days. They recommended that state law be changed to require reporting within 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Justice Department officials failed to remind courts of their responsibility, even when they knew reports were missing.
The department also failed to keep proper track of mental health facilities that also are required to report problems, and employees' judgments on who should be prohibited from owning firearms were sometimes flawed. Of eight decisions reviewed by auditors, three were incorrect.
The audit also criticized the department's backlog of cases, though the state this year allocated $24 million to eliminate the delays by 2016.
The Justice Department agreed with every finding, but spokesman Nick Pacilio declined further comment. The department sent a notice in August reminding courts of their responsibilities.
Court officials generally agreed with the findings, according to responses in the audit. However, the Administrative Office of the Courts raised concerns about changing state law to require reporting within 24 hours, citing budget cuts and court closures on nights and weekends. A new law gives the courts two days to report.
Republican Assemblymen Katcho Achadjian of San Luis Obispo and Allan Mansoor of Costa Mesa had sought the review by the nonpartisan Bureau of State Audits.
The audit "confirmed our worst fears," Achadjian said in a statement. "The safety of our communities relies upon government at every level doing better job of reporting this information."
NBC Bay Area's Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.