Very often when I tell people I’m a forensic psychologist, the response is a lot of questions. People know just enough to be interested in forensic psychology, but not enough to truly understand what it is we do. Portrayals of psychologist on television and in movies usually don’t help. In fact, it seems that even some very basic responsibilities of a forensic psychologist are often misunderstood. In addition, there are different types of forensic psychologists, who do different types of work - child custody evaluators, civil law, criminal law, law enforcement screenings, etc. This will be a brief post on one of the more routine evaluations a criminal forensic psychologist performs - the competency evaluation.
A competency evaluation is a pre-trial evaluation ordered by a judge in order to determine if a defendant is competent to stand trial. This is a legal question, not a psychological one, and ultimately the decision regarding whether a defendant id competent or not rests with a judge. However, it is generally a psychologist or psychiatrist who conducts the evaluation, in order to provide the judge with the information necessary to make an informed decision.
The question of a defendant’s competency can be raised by any relevant party in a case - the defendant (through his attorney), the defense attorney (with or without the approval of the defendant, in certain specific instances), the prosecution, or the judge. Once the issue of competency is raised (and there is any reasonable evidence to suggest competency might be an issue), a judge will, more often than not, allow for an evaluation. This is to ensure that an individual is able to effectively participate in their trial, as well as to eliminate the competency issue as grounds for appeal.
One common point of confusion for the lay person is the difference between a sanity evaluation and a competency evaluation. Sanity evaluations are what the public more often hears about in the media, and have included many well-known cases. These evaluations have to do a defendant’s state of ind at the time of the offense, and they are different type of evaluation altogether. A competency evaluation has to do with a defendant’s current level of functioning - how they are doing right now, as the trial is proceeding.
The modern standard for a defendant to be considered competent to stand trial comes from a 1960 Supreme Court decision, Dusky vs. U.S., which defines the threshold for competency as:
1) A sufficient present ability to consult with his/her attorney with a reasonable degree of understanding
2) A rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him/her
In addition, the federal legal system, as well as most states, have added to this definition a requirement that any deficiencies in either of the two areas above must be due to a severe "mental disease or defect," or some similar wording.
In layman’s terms, the issue of competency looks like this. A defendant may be having problems either working with his attorney, or understanding the proceedings against him. A relevant party in the court picks up on this, and the judge issues an order for a competency hearing. A psychiatrist or psychologist evaluates the defendant, and provides the judge with a report that includes information on whether the defendant is currently suffering from a "severe mental disease or defect," and whether or not that defect, if present, is interfering with the defendant’s ability to understand the court proceedings, or work with their attorney.
I will next cover other areas of competency, such as the types of mental health issues that rise to the level of "severe mental disease or defect," and what happens when someone if found to be either competent or incompetent. In addition, if you are a psychologist or a student, and would like to learn more about competency to stand trial, I can think of no better book to recommend than the one profiled to the right, entitled Competency to Stand Trial Evaluations: A Manual for Practice, by Thomas Grisso.
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