Case Study on Improving Court Practices for Criminal Defendants Struggling with Mental Illness

By JSP Team

The story is too familiar across the nation: A criminal defendant struggling with mental illness spends weeks or even months in jail, his condition deteriorating as he waits for a psychological evaluation to determine whether he is competent to aid and assist in his defense. Meanwhile, a defendant who is similarly charged but for whom competency is not at issue is out of jail in days.

The additional time spent in jail is unfair, expensive, and not therapeutic. Moreover, competency cases are often handled inconsistently within jurisdictions, i.e., one defendant with competency issues may be sent to the state psychiatric hospital while a similar defendant is not—simply because the two cases are heard in different courtrooms, with judges and lawyers who have a different level of experience with competency-related cases and the relevant statues, diagnoses, services, and procedures.

Multnomah County, Oregon, tackled this problem head on, as documented in Justice System Partners’ (JSP) case study funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. In 2016, the county consolidated all competency-related cases under a weekly “aid & assist” docket, with a single judge. Now, defendants whose competency to aid and assist in their defense is in question appear on that docket until (1) their criminal case can proceed because their competency has been restored (through community-based restoration or inpatient restoration at the state psychiatric hospital), or (2) their case is resolved in some other way, such as through dismissal of charges and referral to community-based services or civil commitment.

JSP’s case study describes how, concurrently with the development of the A&A docket, the county implemented an expedited process for evaluating the competency of detained defendants. This eliminated the common issue of defendants languishing in jail while awaiting a psychological evaluation to determine their fitness to stand trial.

The changes in Multnomah County’s court practices dramatically reduced custody time for those defendants whose competency is in question; this has lowered stress on the jail and defendants and also the risk of defendants decompensating while in custody. In addition, creating the special docket and rapid evaluation process improved stakeholder understanding of the day-to-day reality of mental illness, the statutes that define the competency process, and the cooperation needed to provide adequate services to defendants whose competency is at issue.

The case study, available here, provides detailed information on how Multnomah County was able to improve its court practices for pretrial defendants with mental illness, including implementation and operational changes, keys to success, ongoing challenges, lessons learned, and quotes from stakeholders. Additionally, the Oregonian highlighted this important work in the article, Opinion: Changing how the criminal justice system responds to people with mental illness.

For more information on the case study, contact the authors:

Lore Joplin                                           Jennifer Ferguson
Justice System Partners                    Justice System Partners
lore@justicesystempartners.org     Jennifer@justicesystempartners.org

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