DENVER (AP) – Colorado has seen a steady rise in the past decade in the number of defendants being referred for mental exams to ensure they are competent to stand trial, The Denver Post reported Sunday, saying the increase mirrors national trends and highlights a lack of treatment for the mentally ill.
From 2004 to 2013, the number of competency evaluations increased by an average of 76 each year, according to information the Post obtained from the Colorado Department of Human Services. In 2013, 1,069 evaluations were completed.
A judge, defense attorney or prosecutor may request a competency evaluation if the defendant exhibits signs of mental illness. A defendant found incompetent may require treatment until he or she can understand the legal process.
Dr. Neil Gowensmith, who teaches at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, said the increase in the number of evaluations has nothing to do with legal strategy, but instead represents a national trend of people slipping through cracks in the mental health system and falling into legal trouble.
“The legal system has become an entry point into the mental health system,” Gowensmith said. “These are not always the dangerous, violently mentally ill folks. These are often people who are having a hard time navigating life.”
The courts are becoming increasingly aware of how someone’s mental health can affect the ability to receive a fair trial, and how failing to consider competency can become grounds for appeals, said Dr. Patrick Fox, deputy director of clinical services with the Office of Behavioral Health in the human services department. The department has 20 doctors who complete competency evaluations.
Denver attorney Iris Eytan, who led a successful lawsuit against the state to ensure that the evaluations are done in a timely manner, said she’s concerned about the quality of the evaluations. Independent experts, however, say the quality of competency evaluations in Colorado is above grade.
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