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Criminal defense explained: competency vs. sanity

There have been a number of high-profile criminal cases in recent years - including here in Wisconsin - where the defendant's mental health was a prominent subject. Although the United States has a long way to go, it is ultimately a good thing that more attention is being paid to the intersection of mental health and crime.

But what exactly is the connection as it relates to criminal defense? You have likely heard two phrases used commonly: "Not guilty by reason of insanity" and "not competent to stand trial." These may sound like roughly the same thing, but they are not interchangeable. In today's post, we'll explain the basic differences.

In order to be deemed "competent," a defendant must understand what he is being accused of and the consequences he faces if convicted. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that he must have a factual and rational understanding of proceedings against him and must be able to consult with his attorney "with a reasonable degree of rational understanding."

Competency evaluations are done prior to a trial and competency is determined by a judge (sometimes with help from mental health professionals). If the defendant is deemed incompetent, he will not stand trial at that time. If he can be "restored to competence" through treatment, the trial will be delayed until that happens.

Insanity, on the other hand, is a defense used in court. The defendant has already been deemed competent to stand trial, but his attorney is arguing that he should not be found guilty because of his lack of sanity (always, or at the time the crime was committed).

Not all states allow an insanity defense, while others offer various criteria for determining insanity. Unlike competency (which a judge determines), sanity and insanity are determined by the jury.

It should be noted that being deemed incompetent or insane does not mean that a defendant walks free. Indeed, someone deemed incompetent may be ordered to participate in treatment until they can be deemed competent. And defendants deemed insane will typically be committed to a psychiatric hospital. The length of hospital commitment is often equal to or longer than the prison sentence would have been.

Determinations of competency and sanity are central to the fairness of our criminal justice system. If you have questions or concerns about mental health as it relates to a criminal matter, please discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Source: Psychology Today, "The Difference Between 'Competency' and 'Sanity'," Ruth Sarah Lee, Nov. 13, 2014

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