·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Mental Health

Why Utah’s Compassion for Defendant Mental Health Matters

— March 19, 2024

If these amendments pass, defense attorneys will have more opportunities to show the impact of their client’s mental health condition,providing true justice for all sides.

It’s no secret that our criminal justice system has struggled to address how it should treat defendants with mental health conditions. But, as attitudes regarding mental health have evolved around the country, Utah finds itself catching up with the times. State legislators have proposed several amendments to Utah’s laws to address the alarming number of defendants found incompetent to stand trial because of mental health concerns.

Currently, the system has no answer for the cycle of defendants going in and out without getting the treatment they need. This not only creates unnecessary stress on already overburdened courts but also often leads to defendants being denied due process of law and a fair trial.

Under the proposed changes, courts will be able to consider mental health conditions in sentencing and allow more time to determine a defendant’s competency before simply releasing them without any care. By showing some compassion for defendants’ mental health, Utah is stepping more in link with a Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer and will be that much closer to having a fair and effective justice system for all its citizens.

How Amendments to Utah’s Laws Will Address Defendants’ Mental Health

The proposed changes to Utah’s laws will likely have a widespread impact on defendants with mental health conditions and how their attorneys prepare and defend their cases. These amendments not only clarify mental health terms to bring them more in line with today’s understanding, but they also offer alternatives to incarceration. While we will not know the full effect of these amendments until they are passed, it seems the state is starting to take the issue of mental health a little more seriously.

HB330 Redefines What “Competent to Stand Trial” Means

The phrase “competent to stand trial” refers to a person’s ability to understand the charges against them, the consequences of those charges, and their ability to communicate with their lawyer. This is important because everyone deserves a fair trial and needs to understand what’s happening and help with their own defense.

Forensic evaluators are responsible for evaluating a person’s competency to stand trial. They look at things like whether the person understands what’s going on and can make good decisions about their case, whether they can speak with their lawyer, and whether they are showing any signs of faking symptoms to avoid going to trial.

HB330 Extends Restoration Timelines

Another important amendment to HB330 allows the court to extend timelines for restoring competency. If the court finds the defendant incapable of proceeding, but they have a considerable chance of regaining competency soon, the court has the authority to direct the defendant to continue their commitment for up to 45 extra days. This is helpful since defendants do not always get the treatment they need in the required time, as mental health resources in the state are limited.

This bill would also require the state hospital to notify the patient’s attorneys 60 days before they are released. This helps defense counsel decide where their client should be released and what level of care they might need.

HB380 Clarifies What Factors Can Be Used to Determine Competency

HB 380 expands on what evaluators can consider when determining competency. When determining whether a defendant is competent to stand trial, the court will consider various factors in what is known as the “totality of the circumstances.”

These include the petition filed against the defendant, their criminal and arrest history, any prior mental health evaluations and treatments provided to the court by the defendant, and whether the defendant was previously found to be incompetent to proceed in a separate criminal action.

The court can also consider the testimony of lay witnesses and the forensic evaluator’s report and testimony, as well as the materials on which the forensic evaluator’s report is based. Additionally, any other relevant evidence or considerations that might impact the defendant’s competency can be taken into account.

HB385 Clarifies the Difference Between a “Mental Condition” and a “Mental Disability”

HB385 aims to clarify the terms used by professionals and the court to align them more with today’s understanding of mental health. The definition of “mental condition” is an illness or disability that has a significant impact on an individual’s emotional, behavioral, or mental functioning. However, it does not include a mental abnormality that is only seen in repeated criminal behavior, anti-social conduct, or substance use disorder.

In contrast, “mental disability” refers to an intellectual disability or neurodevelopmental disorder as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the current edition published by the American Psychiatric Association.

HB385 also expands the court’s ability to factor mental health into how a defendant’s sentence is structured. If a defendant is found guilty but has a proven mental condition, the changes in the law would allow them to possibly avoid the harshest consequences.

HB473 Expands Who Can Make Competency Determinations

The proposed amendment to the Civil Commitment Examiner Requirements aims to increase the number of mental health professionals who can make competency determinations. If the bill passes, two evaluators will be required for the process. One can now be a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner or a psychiatric mental health clinical nurse specialist, provided they have national certification and at least two years of experience in inpatient mental health. The patient or the patient’s lawyer can designate a second evaluator if available.

Allowing a broader range of specialists can help cover the workload these competency determinations demand.

Can These Amendments Impact Your Defense in a Utah Criminal Case?

Defense attorneys throughout the state are eager to put these changes to the test if passed. The defendant’s state of mind at the time of the crime is a major component of a criminal case, and an individual’s mental health could seriously affect that. Under the proposed amendments, defense attorneys would have much more latitude to argue that the defendant’s mental health was a contributing factor in causing the crime, potentially leading to lighter sentences that focus more on treatment than punishment.

Sentences More Appropriately Structured to the Defendant’s Circumstances

The proposed amendments would allow mental health to be considered when determining a defendant’s sentence. Judges would have the discretion to defer the sentence of an offender who requires mental health treatment.

Under the changes, the defendant could be admitted to either an inpatient or outpatient program. Once the treatment is completed, the defendant would appear before the judge, who can then consider the treatment in their sentencing. In some cases, the offense can be reduced by up to three degrees from the original offense. However, all of these considerations hinge on the court- ordered treatment being completed.

Allows Defense Attorneys to Argue Detailed Mental Health Defenses

Image by Wannapik Studios.
Image by Wannapik Studios.

If these rules are implemented properly, they could lead to a more understanding and careful approach towards these individuals. In the past, arguing that a person’s mental health played a role in the crime they committed did not work well in court. But with these new rules, judges might start to recognize that a person’s mental health should be taken into account when looking at their case.

However, these new rules could also create new problems for lawyers trying to defend their clients. Lawyers might need to spend more money and time on expert witnesses or detailed psychiatric evaluations to prove their clients’ cases. Presenting complicated mental health information clearly and simply could be hard for lawyers who are not experts in this field. However, the benefits greatly outweigh the cost.

Arguing Mental Health Conditions at Parole Board Hearings

The proposed amendments could also impact how mental health is handled in parole board hearings. This would add another argument to the defense attorney’s arguments. If the proposed changes are implemented, the parole board must include a mental health adviser as a member. The adviser will be responsible for educating other board members about the mental health issues of the person being considered for parole.

The adviser’s role is to provide context on the individual’s special needs and circumstances. They will also be responsible for taking recommendations. Defense attorneys in Utah might now be able to provide medical assessments and opinions to the mental health adviser in support of their client’s release. Before this amendment, the arguments of defense attorneys might not have been taken into consideration since most parole board members lacked the necessary training to understand how mental health affects defendants in the criminal justice system.

Defendants with Mental Health Conditions Deserve Compassion in Utah

No one can say if these amendments will be made into law. What can be said for sure is that Utah lawmakers have recognized the growing need to include mental health considerations in criminal cases. It does no good to live in a society that now understands the importance of mental health but does not reflect that in its legal system. If these amendments pass, defense attorneys will have more opportunities to show the impact of their client’s mental health condition,providing true justice for all sides.

Join the conversation!