May 29, 2008
Mentally incompetent defendants on rise
The number of accused felons declared mentally incompetent to stand trial is rising in 10 of the nation's 12 largest states, delaying local prosecutions and swamping state mental health and prison systems, a USA TODAY review finds.These defendants cost hundreds of millions of dollars to treat and house as local governments tighten their budgets because of a slowing economy.Legal analysts attribute the increase to a lack of mental health care, judges' increased openness to such claims and legal strategies by defendants to try to avoid harsh punishment.
Criminal defendants who do not understand the legal proceedings against them are generally declared by judges to be incompetent for trial. Most are referred to mental health facilities and treated. The length of treatment varies from an average of three weeks in Virginia to more than nine months in Tennessee before they are deemed fit for trial or mental health experts determine they cannot be successfully treated, the USA TODAY review found.There is wide variation in how states track thousands of incompetency rulings, and some do not track them at all. Of the 12 most populous states, Texas reported a decline last year and New Jersey did not provide data. [Mark Godsey]
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