When Mental Illness And Criminal Justice Converge, Some Are Incompetent To Stand Trial

Mar 1, 2016

Under Florida law, people must be mentally competent before they stand trial. Now some state lawmakers are working on reforms for defendants who are incompetent. While a similar proposal was vetoed by Governor Rick Scott in 2013, this year the measure could get another chance.

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Some 2 million people with mental illness are booked into America’s jails every year. That’s according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness As more mentally ill people are swept into the criminal justice system, more are deemed incompetent and unfit to stand trial. Though a similar bill was vetoed in 2013, some state lawmakers are going back to the drawing board on how these cases are handled.

“It’s a start, and we believe it’s an appropriate change, and the state attorneys have signed off on it,” she said.

That’s Representative Kathleen Peters of St. Pete, the bill’s sponsors. The main facet of Peters’ bill could smooth the transition from jail into therapy. When they aren’t able to stand trial, defendants enroll in a counseling program, with the hopes of restoring competency. These programs typically include therapy, medication and case management, and may be conducted in a ‘forensic’ mental hospital, or a community or ‘civil’ setting. Peters’ bill would keep people on the same medications when they make this transition. John Bryant is an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health at the Department of Children and Families.

“They arrive with mediation from the jail, yet once they arrive at out facility refuse to take that medication,” he said.

If recovery is successful and the defendant is able to stand trial, a new hearing is scheduled for the case. But Bryant, says this process isn’t always timely, and defendants may have to wait it out in a mental hospital.  

“Although 85% of the courts basically have scheduled the hearing, and have that court hearing scheduled within 30 days, there’s about 15% of the individuals that we have residing within our facilities who have not had that hearing scheduled. We believe that it’s important to ensure that those individuals have the same rights as everybody else,” he said.

Peter’s bill would ensure a hearing is held within 30 days of a defendant being deemed competent.

Some may not recover from their illnesses, and may never be able to stand trial. Currently, if a nonviolent defendant is deemed incompetent for 5 consecutive years, they can be cleared of charges and released. But Peters says mental health professionals call this process ineffective and inefficient.

“They said if they don’t get a patient, and that has been historic with every facility I tour, that if they didn’t get an inmate competent within two years, they weren’t, they were not going to get them competent. Now for nonviolent offenders, to leave them in a forensic facility that’s extremely expensive and there’s confidence that they cannot get them competent, why would we leave them there for five years when it’s been a nonviolent nature offense to begin with,” she said.

This is the most controversial aspect of the bill.  In 2013, the House and Senate passed a similar bill unanimously. But when it reached the governor’s desk, he vetoed it because he thought the conditions for release were too broad. But under Peters’ bill, only those charged with certain nonviolent crimes would be eligible for early release.

“The state attorneys objected because we didn’t put enough exclusions in and they felt that the aggravated battery and some other things should be included. And so we have worked with the state attorney. This really does not allow us to let a lot people out of the forensic facility early because of the changes that we’ve added in,” she said.

Peters is confident the measure will get the support it needs. The bill awaits a floor vote in the House and Senate.