The Current Standards for Competency and Insanity in the Legal System

free essayIn the matter of criminal justice, defendants’ competence and insanity are put into consideration to ensure a fair trial. The first is the ability of an individual to understand the nature of a criminal charge facing him or her, while the second determines whether the one can be held accountable for a crime, which he/she has committed (Johnson, 2014). Even though, clinical data are crucial in the examination of insanity and competence, an objective and subjective analysis forms an equally important aspect of identification. Standards for the latter are both multidimensional and explicit. In the light of deciding on how to handle an incompetent person, many legal thresholds have to be met to balance the state interest and the right to a fair trial. The research aims at presenting findings by different researchers in discussing the issue of current standards for competency and insanity in the legal system.

In the present world, in movies and books, people encounter such phrases as not competent to stand a trial or at times not guilty on the ground of insanity. Competency involves understanding and comprehending the criminal nature of an act done by an individual and proceedings he/she is charged with, while insanity determines the ability to hold a person responsible for a criminal act the one has committed (Johnson, 2014). Despite clinical records being a contributing factor in the examination of both mental states, the process of determination may involve a comprehensive analysis of both objective and subjective data. Standards of determining insanity are multidimensional and in most situations case-specific. According to Bursztajn and Brodsky (2016), competence is the soundness of an individual to carry out legal acts, for which standards should be minimal rather than maximum. This essay aims to discuss the current standards for competency and insanity in the legal system and will consider the determination process, the basis for raising the issue of competence and waiving rights, as well as the treatment of incompetent defendants.

Get a price quote

Determination of Competence

In the criminal law, it is the role of psychiatrists to assess the competency of the accused to stand a trial or to confess. They may also act as consultants to the court and the probation officer about the preparation of probation reports. Only on rare occasions, psychiatrists are asked to examine other areas of competence (Bursztajn & Brodsky, 2016). According to Stafford and Sellbom (2013), a minimal constitutional requirement for the prosecution to proceed is that the defendant should possess the ability to consult with his/her lawyer rationally.

Under the standards set by the Supreme Court in 1960, factors used to consider a defendant competent include the following: first, one should be in a position to acknowledge that he or she is in a court and charged with a criminal offense (Stafford & Sellbom, 2013). Secondly, he or she should know that a judge is on the bench and the prosecutor is a representative of the forces of his or her prosecution working to convict him. Thirdly, a person should know that he or she has a lawyer working to defend the one and should be in a position to narrate to his or her attorney the account of an event, including the circumstances, time and place of a crime (Stafford & Sellbom, 2013).

Basis for Raising the Issue of Competence

A trial judge is the one to raise the issue of competence because the court has the evidence of it, such has been provided by the defense, or the prosecution claims that behavior warrants a further inquiry into the matter.

Amnesia and Competence

In a case involving Wilson v. the United States (1968), the court of appeal upheld the conviction of a man that had memory impairment at the time of the alleged offense due to head injuries he sustained after being involved in an accident (as cited in Stafford & Sellbom, 2013). The case was remanded with the aim of finding out whether the injuries had deprived the appellant of the effective assistance of the counsel and a fair trial. In the case, the jury articulated six factors as conditions for the conviction. First, circumstances that could have prevented the defendant from receiving the help of his lawyer, defendant’s ability to defend himself, possibility of evidence reconstruction due to defendant’s amnesia, as well as government assistance to the accused and his legal team in rehabilitation. The strength of the case was that it set standards for determining the competence of a person based on his memory abilities after the consideration of evidence presented by the prosecution, as well as any other factors indicating whether the accused had a fair trial or not. This case has made it clear that legal decisions are aimed towards accuracy and fairness in court proceedings, and this can only be achieved through the surety of the defendant being competent.

Competence to Waive Rights

The incompetence of the defendant to participate in the proceedings of a criminal case to articulate his or her plea is a way to waive individual rights. Competency in a trail involves decisions that help in resolving the case in a just, fair and accurate manner.

Competence to Plead Guilty

In the United States, over 90% of criminal cases are resolved via a plea of guilty (Stafford & Sellbom, 2013). This issue results waiving several rights, including the avoidance of one’s incrimination, the right to a jury trial, as well as the right to face the accuser. For instance, in 1973, the court of appeal held that competence to plead guilty and the one to stand a trial are not identical. As a result, a new standard was adopted, pursuant to which the defendant would not be competent to plead guilty if he or she was mentally impaired (Texas Appleseed, 2015). Thus, he or she could not make a reasonable choice from the ones provided and would not be in a position to comprehend the consequences of his or her plea.

Our outstanding writers are mostly educated to MA and PhD level

The Standard of Proof

It was ruled by the Supreme Court in Oklahoma in the case of Cooper v. Oklahoma (1996) that the proof of competence by the defendant violated a due process, in which the state put such a person on trial whose competence was questionable (as cited in Stafford & Sellbom, 2013). As a result of the case, the following standard was set that the ability of the respondent was more important than the interest of the state since putting a defendant on trial in the state of incompetence was a denial to fair court proceedings. This idea means that the competence of the respondent must outweigh the interest of the country for the efficiency of criminal judicial operations since it is a fundamental right of the accused to be tried in his right state of mind.

Competency to Refuse Insanity Defense

Federal courts consider the importance of distinguishing defendant’s competency and the plea of insanity (Stafford & Sellbom, 2013). In the case of Frendak v. the United States (1979), the prevailing view that was held by the court in the District of Colombia was that a judge would not impose insanity defense if the defendant voluntarily or intelligently forwent such (as cited in Stafford & Sellbom, 2013). Such standard is used in current legal practice.

Treatment of Incompetent Defendants

Standards for Insane Defendant Hospitalization

In the case of Jackson v. Indiana (1972), the Supreme Court ordered the hospitalization of an incompetent deaf-mute who was mentally retarded until he could be competent, even though the hospital was of the opinion that it was difficult for him ever to comprehend and participate in court proceedings (as cited in Stafford & Sellbom, 2013). Many states have introduced the limitation of hospitalization to the term of a sentence if the defendant would have been convicted, while others make the one stay hospitalized longer than necessary.

Involuntary Medication

The U.S. Second District Court of Appeals addressed the issue of involuntary medication during the trial of United States v. Charters (1987) stating that the administration of psychotropic drugs required a separate decision of the judiciary with the use of the required standards (as cited in Stafford & Sellbom, 2013). It was further ruled by the Supreme Court in 1990 that involuntary medication to inmates in prison was constitutional. According to Kim, Becker-Cohen, and Serakos (2015), in this case, involuntary medication is right for the safety of others and the defendant.


The determination of competence is the role of psychiatrists who advise courts accordingly. The basis for raising the issue of competence includes amnesia and other problems that may retard defendant’s mental skills. As a result, the one is only allowed to plead guilty in his or her right state of mind to be able to choose from several options. Furthermore, the standard of proof emphasizes the importance of competence over the state interest, while refusing insanity defense means that the judge will not impose such if the defendant voluntarily forgoes it. Finally, standards for the treatment of incompetent defendants are also a concern that involves the consideration of its length as well as the use of involuntary medication.

Discount applied successfully