Insanity and Competency Assessment

As discussed previously, forensic psychology is the interaction between the clinical practice of psychology and the law. Insanity and competency are two legal issues that examine specific mental health aspects of clinical practice within the legal context. Courts utilize forensic psychologists as experts to assist in arriving at legal decisions for both, but the focus is on addressing the legal question before the court, not in answering a psychological question. Though insanity and competency both focus on mental health aspects of the law, the issues involved are very dissimilar and often confused. Insanity focuses on a person’s mental state at the time of a crime, and competence focuses on a person’s mental state at the present moment.

The defense of insanity was originally established to provide a legal compromise to a moral dilemma. The courts reasoned that it was not fair or just to punish a person who committed a crime only because the person was mentally ill. If someone is found insane, they do not possess the mental state necessary to be culpable or blameworthy of a crime. As a result, people who are found insane are not guilty or responsible for their behavior. Despite the public’s misguided beliefs, the insanity defense is rarely employed, and those who are found insane are rarely simply set free. The insanity defense is used in 1 percent of all felony cases, and a defendant is found insane in less than one third of those cases (Callahan, Steadman, McGreevy, & Robbins, 1991).

It is the job of the forensic psychologist to assess whether a defendant meets the criteria set in a given jurisdiction for insanity. Although standards for insanity vary, in order to be found insane, a defendant generally must demonstrate that he or she suffers from a mental illness that prevents him or her from knowing what he or she is doing, or knowing that what he or she did was wrong. In some states, the mental illness simply impairs the person’s ability to control his or her behavior.

For example, if you choke someone because he cut you off in traffic, you could be arrested for assault. However, if you choke your best friend believing she is a lemon and that you are going to make lemonade, you may be found insane. It is the difficult task of forensic psychologists to look back retrospectively and help the court determine whether, at the time of the crime, the defendant suffered from a mental illness, and whether that mental illness impaired the defendant to such an extent, in terms of thought process or behavior, that the defendant cannot legally be held responsible for his or her behavior.

Competency is a much different and, in many ways, easier standard to meet than insanity. Competency focuses on a person’s mental state and is designed to insure the fairness of the legal process. However, criminal competency normally focuses on a defendant’s present state of mind. The intent of a competency evaluation is typically on a defendant’s current mental functioning during some aspect of the legal process. A person’s competency is most often an issue at trial. However, a person must be competent to confess to a crime, enter a plea, waive the insanity defense, or even be executed. In order to be competent, a person must basically be able to understand the nature of the charges against him or her and any consequences faced, given the different legal outcomes at a particular time. A person standing trial should know the role of the judge, his or her attorney, how to communicate with that attorney, that the prosecuting attorney is trying to find him or her guilty, and that the jury will decide his or her guilt or innocence. The person should also understand that if she is found guilty, she will be sentenced to a particular range of sentences. Our legal system requires people to be competent during the legal process to make sure they can participate in the process so that it is fair.

Although insanity is rarely used and rarely successful, competency is the most frequently addressed mental health question facing the courts, and most individuals are found competent. For example, pretrial competency evaluations occur in as many as 8 percent of all felony cases (Hoge, Bonnie, Poythress, & Monahan, 1992), and competency to stand trial is only one of the many instances in which competency can be an issue. Some estimates suggest that 60,000 competency evaluations take place each year (Bonnie & Grisso, 2000) and that this number is a significant increase from past years (Steadman, Monahan, Hartstone, Davis, & Robbins, 1982). The majority of defendants are found competent, and those that are found incompetent exhibit serious mental impairment. Nicholson and Kugler (1991) found that incompetent defendants generally suffered from a psychotic diagnosis, like schizophrenia, and have been hospitalized in the past. Moreover, individuals found incompetents typically have brief hospital stays (Nicholson & McNulty, 1992) and over 90 percent of them are later found competent (Nicholson, Barnard, Robbins, & Hankins, 1994).

Return to overview of Clinical Forensic Psychology.