Passage of New Law in 2012 May Help Expedite Evaluation of Mentally Ill Criminal Defendants in Clark County

News was reported in The Columbian on October 29, 2014 by Journalist Paris Achen, “Clark County may become the second county in the state to use a panel of local experts to evaluate mentally ill defendants, rather than ask the state hospital to perform competency evaluations, local officials said.”

As a long time criminal defense attorney in the community, I am pleased to hear this latest development in the evaluation of mentally ill defendants in Clark County.  It has been my experience in the past — many defendant’s wait significant periods of time in jail while awaiting their competency evaluations.  A waiting period that can often exceed the standard sentencing range for offenses they are facing.  Consequently, the waiting period can exceed sentencing recommendation typically made by the State for purposes of pre-trial resolution.  Many of the cases involve people being held in custody for non-violent crimes like drug possession, theft and possession of stolen property.  Not to mention misdemeanor offenses.

In other words, let’s say someone is incarcerated in jail on a charge of Theft in the Second Degree.  No prior convictions.  But still unable to make bail so they remain in jail pending the outcome of the case.  Competency is at issue so an evaluation is ordered by the Court.  Absent aggravating factors, the standard sentence range for the Theft in the Second Degree with no prior felonies is 0-60 days.  Unfortunately, the evaluation can take so long that the by the time competency is established that person may have served well over the high end of the range for the offense he/she is being held on.  Example given, someone waiting 3 months in jail before competency is established even though the high end of the range is 2 months.  Sadly, mental illness can result in a huge disparity between the time served for two individuals charged with the same; however, one is being evaluated for competency and the other is not.  This is an unfair though necessary to promote a fair trial.  But efforts should be made to at least ameliorate this unintended consequence.

That said, it appears I am not the only one frustrated with what can be a laborious evaluation process. According to the article, Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, Tony Golik is quoted, “I think it’s a very positive thing that we are moving forward on this … It’s frustrating that Western State (Hospital) takes significantly longer than it should to do competency evaluations.”

The article cites funding and personnel as two major culprits in evaluation delays.

According to the article, “a law went into effect in May 2012 allowed some counties to receive state reimbursement for competency evaluations conducted by private local experts.”  In other words, instead of having to waiting for Western State Hospital to conduct and complete its evaluations.  A more accessible and available local panel of experts can be used to expedite the process at State expense.

Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik is further quoted in the article as saying, “It’s important … that we don’t have people just languishing in jail waiting for an evaluation .. It’s important to the criminal justice system as a whole that if you have somebody impacted by mental illness, we can get an evaluation quickly to find out what level the mental illness is so we can react appropriately.”

The article indicates officials hope to have the panel completed by January 2015.  And as required by law, “the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the local defense bar have been involved in selecting the experts for the local panel.”

To read the article in its entirety, please click the following link.