May 01, 2015

Driven by Financial Reasons or Passion?

By Judge Elizabeth R. Finn

Arizona’s Rule of Criminal Procedure 11.1 defines the basis for incompetency to stand trial:

A person shall not be tried, convicted, sentenced or punished for a public offense, except for proceedings pursuant to A.R.S. § 36-3707(D), while, as a result of a mental illness, defect, or disability, the person is unable to understand the proceedings against him or her or to assist in his or her own defense. Mental illness, defect or disability means a psychiatric or neurological disorder that is evidenced by behavioral or emotional symptoms, including congenital mental conditions, conditions resulting from injury or disease and developmental disabilities as defined [by statute]. The presence of a mental illness, defect or disability alone is not grounds for finding a defendant incompetent to stand trial.1

In Arizona, a limited jurisdiction court such as Glendale City Court cannot make the determination as to competence. The case must be transferred to Superior Court, our general jurisdiction court. At least two psychiatrists examine a defendant at a cost of $300 each. If the two psychiatrists disagree as to competence, a third psychiatrist examines the defendant for another $300. All psychiatric and interpreter costs are paid for by the limited jurisdiction court or its city. If a language interpreter is required, the city must also pay that cost. In addition, a $150 fee is imposed for a defendant not appearing for an appointment or a defendant remaining in custody. As a result, one can calculate this process is very costly. Lastly, if a defendant is found to be unable to understand the proceedings or assist in his or her defense, no program services are triggered by that finding. The court only orders the dismissal of the charges. Without the intervention of the mental health services, many of these defendants find themselves back in the criminal justice system again, endangering their families, their communities, or themselves.

In our court, we saw our psychiatric costs in 2012 increasing from $15,000 to $35,000 annually. As presiding judge, those budget numbers were a major concern. The increased budget projection prompted us to determine if we had sufficient numbers of defendants to warrant creating a specialty mental health court. Our regional behavioral health authority (RBHA),2 an entity that receives funding from the Arizona Department of Health Services, agreed to do a data match to determine how many of our defendants were in their database with a diagnosis of serious mental illness. Many of these defendants would probably be referred by their public defenders for a Rule 11 determination because of the defendant’s inability to respond to the normal communication.

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