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Individuals suffering from mental illness are one of the most vulnerable groups in society. Stigmas about their presumed propensity to engage in illegal activity can result in the unfair targeting of the mentally ill when crimes are suspected. Anyone facing criminal charges, regardless of their circumstances, needs the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure the government is handling the case properly and fairly. Unfortunately, prisons and jails nationwide house a significant number of individuals with known cases of mental illness but lack the proper training and resources to treat them.

Often, these individuals are bound and placed in solitary confinement for extended periods as a method of controlling behavior officials view as violent, erratic or disruptive. The tragic death of a mentally ill inmate in San Luis Obispo County Jail last January made national news and prompted public outcry of the treatment of the mentally ill in county jails throughout the State.

California law allows criminal defendants to use mental illness as a defense to charges that can directly affect whether they are permitted to stand trial, and can serve to temper the potential punishment. A discussion of how the law treats mental illness in criminal trials will follow below.

Competency to Stand Trial

The State is not permitted to try and convict a person of a crime if he/she is incapable of understanding the proceedings against him/her or is unable to meaningfully participate in his/her own defense. This determination is made after criminal charges are filed and does not depend on person’s state during the time of the alleged crime.

This right is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution as part of receiving a fair trial. However, convincing a court that a criminal defendant is incompetent can be tricky, and a defendant must prove he/she does not have the ability to rationally or factually understand the proceedings, or assist his/her attorney with preparing for trial.

Mental illness can cause these types of cognitive difficulties, and as long as the accused is incapable of understanding what being tried for a crime really means, the case cannot proceed. But, if competency is later restored, the State could choose to pursue prosecution at that time. If incompetency is found, the accused will be required to undergo psychiatric treatment and/or be committed to a treatment facility so doctors can attempt to control and manage any existing mental illness.

Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity

By contrast, entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity is a legal defense and not a procedural requirement like competency. Further, it is based on the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the alleged offense, and not when the case is tried. Specifically, the court will have to decide if the defendant had the mental capacity to understand his/her actions, or if the defendant could distinguish between right and wrong when the alleged offense occurred.

Establishing either is sufficient to show someone is legally insane. Further, the compromised mental state can be temporary and still qualify for this defense. Unlike in other aspects of a criminal trial, the defendant has burden of proving this defense, and must show it was more likely than not he/she was insane at the time of the alleged offense.

Sentencing Alternatives

Because mental illness can significantly affect a person’s ability to control his/her actions or understand the implications of what he/she is doing, it is possible to receive a sentence that foregoes time in jail in favor of a combination of probation and psychiatric treatment.

This option focuses on addressing the root of the problem – mental illness – instead of imposing sentences that will not fix the situation. An experienced criminal defense attorney will know how to argue in favor of this outcome to the prosecutor and court so the mentally ill defendant receives rehabilitation and not just punishment.

Hire a Criminal Defense Attorney

Presenting all available objections and defenses to criminal charges is one the main jobs of a criminal defense attorney, and only experience can hone the attorney’s ability to present objections and defenses effectively. The Manshoory Law Group, APC represents clients facing criminal charges in Los Angeles and commits to doing all that is possible to obtain the best possible outcome. Attorneys are available 24/7 to take your call. Contact us for a free consultation.

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