Thursday, April 12, 2012

Competency Evaluations to Be Completed Sooner in Colorado

The State of Colorado recently settled a lawsuit regarding the length of time it takes to complete competency to stand trial evaluations. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued the state was violating the due process rights of individuals with mental illness because they were being held in custody for too long without having their cases move through the court system.

A little background information: Individuals have a number of legal rights under the US Constitution when they are charged with a crime. The US Supreme Court has made it very clear that an individual must be competent to understand those rights in order to receive a fair trial. If there is any question regarding competency, a person's case is essentially frozen in time until he/she undergoes a competency evaluation and the court determines if the person is competent or not. If found competent, the case starts back up like normal. If found incompetent, the person is usually treated for whatever condition is causing the incompetency (usually a cognitive problem or psychosis), and then the case starts up again when the person is "restored" to competency.

The plaintiffs in the Colorado lawsuit argued that individuals with mental illness were being denied due process for too long while they waited in jail or at the state mental health hospital in Pueblo for a competency evaluation. If you think about it, this argument makes sense. Imagine you have been charged with a felony and are in jail with no chance of getting bonded out. Your attorney is afraid you might not be competent to understand your rights and face trial, so the judge orders an evaluation. At that point, your case essentially stops until the evaluation is completed and the judge can make a ruling. But, you wait in jail for two months before you are evaluated. So, you are held in jail, almost as though you were guilty, without being able to contest it. You haven't entered a plea, you haven't had the chance to work with your attorney, you may not have had an opportunity to see the evidence against you, and you have not gone to trial. You are just stuck in jail. My guess is that you would not be too happy about that situation.

Due to the settlement, Colorado is now required to complete competency evaluations within 24 days of the court order for individuals in the state hospital and within 30 days for those in jail. I checked with a source at the state hospital in Pueblo, and he seemed confident that they would be able to work within those guidelines. As far as I can tell, this time frame does not apply to individuals who are free on bond--it only applies to individuals who are at the state hospital or in a county jail.

Here is a link to the Denver Post article about the lawsuit settlement: Colorado Settles Lawsuite Over Inmates' Mental Health Evaluations

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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