How is Mental Illness Addressed in Criminal Courts?

Trauma Therapist

When it comes to mental illness, we have a long way to go in how we address it in our criminal courts. Often, mental illness is ignored as a factor in the commission of a crime, and only those with the most extreme symptoms are provided with treatment or have their mental illness factored in when determining culpability.

There are two ways in which mental illness is typically addressed in criminal courts. The first is the issue of competency to stand trial. In most states, the standard for whether someone is competent to stand trial is based on two factors. (1) Whether the defendant understands the nature and purpose of the proceeding, and (2) Whether the defendant is able to rationally assist their attorney in their own defense. If the defendant is unable to understand the nature and purpose of the proceeding, OR is unable to assist in their own defense (not necessarily both need to be true), then the defendant is not competent to stand trial.

The second way that mental illness is addressed in criminal courts is when someone is found not to be criminally responsible for the charged crime. This is also known as being found to be not guilty by reason of insanity. This is a different issue than competency to stand trial. You could be mentally ill enough to be found incompetent to stand trial, but not meet the definition of not guilty by reason of insanity.

To be found not guilty by reason of insanity, you generally have to show one of two things exist as a result of either mental illness or intellectual disability. First, you could show that because of the defendant’s mental status, he or she lacked the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her conduct. Second, you could show that because of the defendant’s mental status, he or she was unable to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of the law. If someone if found not guilty by reason of insanity, they are not released, but rather sent for treatment at the state’s center for forensic psychiatry or a psychiatric hospital.

Some states also give juries the ability to find a defendant “guilty but mentally ill.” In most jurisdictions, a finding of guilty but mentally ill doesn’t do much for the defendant in the way of providing treatment for their mental illness or for finding them less culpable of the crime. The person is still found guilty and punished in the same manner as someone who does not suffer from mental illness. They are incarcerated in a jail or prison rather than sent for treatment. While they might be placed on medication while incarcerated, most defendants found to be guilty but mentally ill aren’t treated much different than the average prisoner.

Some states and jurisdictions are now also exploring the use of specialty courts, such as mental health courts, in order to more directly focus on the treatment of mental health issues within the criminal justice system. The court in these cases often becomes more highly involved in managing the treatment of mental health issues of defendants, and the focus tends to be more geared toward treatment and rehabilitation than at punishment.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, and mental illness is a concern, it is important that you contact a criminal law lawyer, who has experience with defending people who suffer from mental illness.