How can mental health impact my criminal case in Colorado?

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There are many aspects of mental health that impact both a lawyer’s strategy in defending a case, and a person’s experience as they move through the criminal justice system. Mental illness impacts a large proportion of criminal defendants, as our jails and prisons have become de facto mental institutions over the past century. First, unfortunately, police arrest individuals because they are in crisis, there is no available psychiatric care, and the officer believes that the individual will be “safer” in jail. This not only raises serious societal questions about mental health care and the role of police, but often results in individuals undergoing a mental health crisis behind bars, with very inadequate care. At this stage, family members feel lost, as they cannot access their loved one; this is where an attorney can help. Often, a family will hire counsel to represent their loved one, or to represent the family’s interests before the court in arguing bond; an attorney can also visit an individual in the jail in order to help assess their mental health needs. Second, in many cases involving serious mental illness or a mental health crisis, competency will be raised. Competency is a legal floor used to determine whether a person understands the trial proceedings enough to be constitutionally prosecuted. Competency does not relate to a person’s guilt or innocence. Competency proceedings include evaluation by the state hospital, and can involve some treatment if restoration proceedings are ordered. Competency litigation is complex and involves a lot of medical knowledge; from time to time, a general criminal defense attorney will bring in a specialist just to litigate the competency proceedings on a case. Competency is often confusing for families and defendants, it truly helps to have someone knowledgeable about both the legal and hospital-related aspects of the process involved. Third, if a person was not “sane” at the time they committed a crime, that person can plead Insanity, or Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, (NGRI), stating that they did do the act, but they are not responsible for it because of their mental state. NGRI cases are very difficult to win at trial; however, many of these NGRI pleadings result in a stipulation, between the defense and prosecution, to a NGRI verdict; this is much like a plea, and results in civil commitment to the state hospital for an indefinite period of time. If an NGRI case goes to trial, there are a great deal of mental health specific motions that can be litigated. This is another area for a specialist- whether you are an attorney looking for a second chair mental health expert, or an accused person seeking an attorney. NGRI trials involve multiple experts, and can be very costly because of this. Fourth, any mental health evidence that helps to explain an accused’s state of mind, or lack of guilt, should be presented to the Prosecutor and the judge in order to negotiate a settlement of the case, or argue for a lesser sentence. In my practice, this involves obtaining medical records, having my client go through various evaluations (psychiatric, developmental, brain imaging), working with social workers to gather family and mental health history, and presenting all of this information to the prosecutor in a meaningful and persuasive way. Colorado courts have a growing awareness and understanding of the mental health crisis in our criminal justice system; it is essential for your attorney to present this information to the court during your sentencing in order to make sure that you have the best outcome to your case. Finally, mental health can play a large role in appeals and post-conviction/ineffective assistance of counsel cases. Many individuals prosecuted prior to the current wave of mental health criminal justice reform were prosecuted in violation of their constitutional rights, or did not have effective assistance because their attorneys did not explore possible mental health-related defenses. In order to determine whether these issues are present, it is important to have an attorney familiar with the range of ways that mental health intersects with the court process evaluate the merits of your claim. So, the short answer is — mental health can impact your case at every stage of the criminal process in Colorado. If you, or someone you love, are going through this struggle, make sure that you have an attorney you trust to help guide you through the process.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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