“Mental incapacity to stand trial.” What does it mean? How will Idaho restore defendants’ competency?

Ross Edmunds, administrator for the Division of Behavioral Health with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, explains the process of assessing mental competence when it comes to fitness testing. Idaho law does not allow an insanity defense. | Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – Idaho is one of four states in which a person the mental condition cannot be used as a defense against a criminal charge.

This leads to the process of restoring the defendant’s competency to stand trial after they have been declared mentally unfit, something that has happened in several high-profile cases, including the upcoming ones. Lori Daybell murder trial.

It can also lead to essentially abandoned charges if there is no possible way to restore a person’s competence, something that happened recently in a Canyon County case involving fatal shooting.

Ross Edmunds, an administrator of the Department of Health and Welfare, spoke to the Idaho Statesman about the process in a state that does not allow a defense of insanity.

“It’s pretty rare that we find someone who isn’t returnable to the skill,” Edmunds said. “But people with an extremely low IQ would never be able to figure out who the judge is, what their job is or who their lawyer is.”

But is it that easy to “restore” someone’s competence?

Edmunds said the key is often the proper medication for the accused, but there are other factors, such as therapy, education and daily activities.

Edmunds told the Statesman that people accused of a crime obviously have a right to participate in the court process. If the defendant’s mental state prohibits that, a judge may order a skill assessment. The Department of Health and Welfare conducts these evaluations, a process in which a psychiatrist or psychologist examines the mental condition of an accused.

Dr. Tanisha Keith, the head of psychology at State Hospital South in Blackfoot, told the Statesman that people deemed mentally incompetent display a wide range of symptoms and problems.

“When the defendant’s symptoms have a significant impact on his mood, thinking, speech, behavior, etc., to the extent that he could not demonstrate the ability to consult with his lawyer, understand the legal processes and/or make rational decisions about their lawyer. In case, these symptoms will generally render the defendant not competent to proceed with his case at that time,” Keith said in an email.

Depending on the results of the evaluation, a defendant could be ordered to undergo the restoration of skills and receive treatment in a hospital setting, something that can take time and delay cases – such as it happened with Lori Daybellwho is accused of the murder of two of his children, among other crimes.

What is IDAHO’s competency restoration process?

Idaho lawmakers abolished the insanity defense in 1982 after 25-year-old John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in Washington, DC, in 1981. In one of the most famous cases involving mental health, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason. of insanity on June 21, 1982.

The states besides Idaho that do not allow a plea based on mental disease or defect are Kansas and the neighboring states of Montana and Utah.

In other neighboring states, such as Washington and Wyoming, a defendant can be said to be suffering from a mental illness or disorder at the time of the crime. If they are successful with an insanity plea, they end up in a mental health facility for treatment rather than prison.

Below Idaho code, a person deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial must be committed to a treatment facility with Health and Welfare for no more than 90 days before. The agency has a psychiatric hospital in Orofino in addition to the one in Blackfoot.

Keith, who regularly works with patients at Blackfoot, said patients have access to therapy groups on topics such as stress management, coping with loss and relapse prevention. She said patients are also offered daily recreational activities, including yoga, arts and crafts, and music group.

Patients meet with their assigned clinician and medication provider at least once a week, and must participate in a weekly legal education group, which involves completing a skills restoration workbook and meeting regularly with a psychologist forensic in preparation for its evaluation.

Keith said one of the biggest challenges people face is seeing a break in their legal processes.

“Patients are often frustrated by their inability to work on the case with their attorney while they are in treatment, as they feel it is impeding their ability to resolve the case in a timely manner,” he said. If at the end of the first 90 days, the accused is still not competent, a new order can be issued for an additional 180 days in treatment.

If at the end of the two orders a judge decides that competence has not been restored, a court order can be entered for a civil commitment.

Once a person has been found competent to stand trial, they are transferred from the mental institution to the jail in the county where they were arrested.

Edmunds said that sometimes it happens that a defendant will have the competency restored, go back to prison and then have to undergo the whole process again.

“Imagine the difference in the environment,” he said. “You’re in a hospital with us. You’re around nurses and behavioral health experts, and now, all of a sudden, you’re back in a jail cell. So, it’s not uncommon for someone to decompensate again.”

Edmunds said there are typically two groups of defendants who go through the competency restoration process: those with developmental disabilities and those with mental illness.

Between 2021 and 2022, Edmunds said there were 595 patients in the mental illness category admitted for competency restoration. Of that group, 516 of them returned to the justice system, while the remaining patients remained in care at the Department of Health and Welfare or went to outpatient services and residential care.

People with mental illness can almost always be restored to competency when properly medicated, he said. This is not the case for someone with a developmental disorder or a problem such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. That was the case in a fatal Canyon County shooting where the defendant’s dementia forced the charges to be dismissed.

Edmunds also said that a defendant with developmental disabilities, such as someone who is not verbal, could never be able to contribute to his own defense, which would mean that he could not be restored to competence.

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