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Competency to Stand Trial - Disposition Following Competency Determination

defendant court competence incompetency

If the court finds the defendant competent, the trial proceedings will resume; if not, they will be suspended and the defendant will be ordered into treatment, typically on an inpatient basis. Treatment is designed not to cure the defendant, but to restore competence. If such restoration is thought to have been achieved, a new round of evaluations and hearings will occur, and if the court is satisfied concerning the defendant's competence, the criminal proceedings will be resumed.

In excess of thirty-six thousand defendants are evaluated for competency each year and the number appears to be increasing. The vast majority (as high as 96 percent in some jurisdictions and probably 75 percent in most) are found competent. Nearly all of those found incompetent are hospitalized for treatment, where they are treated with psychotropic drugs and typically returned to court within several months as restored to competence. Some are hospitalized for longer periods, and some are never restored to competence.

Although designed largely based on considerations of paternalism and fairness to the defendant, the competency doctrine frequently imposes heavy burdens on the defendant and considerable costs upon the criminal justice system. Prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Jackson v. Indiana (406 U.S. 715(1972)), defendants hospitalized for incompetency to stand trial received what amounted to an indeterminate sentence of confinement in a mental hospital, typically exceeding many years and often the maximum period authorized as a sentence for the crime charged, and sometimes lasting a lifetime. In Jackson, the Court recognized a constitutional limit on the duration of incompetency commitment, holding that a defendant committed solely based upon trial incompetence could not be held more than a reasonable period of time necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability that he will obtain capacity in the foreseeable future. Any continued confinement, the Court held, must be based upon the probability that the defendant will be restored to competence within a reasonable time. If the treatment provided does not succeed in advancing the defendant toward that goal, then the state must either commence customary civil commitment proceedings or release the defendant. Although Jackson marked an end to the most egregious cases of incompetency commitment, many states have responded insufficiently to the Court's decision and abuses persist. The delay often imposed by the incompetency process, much of it unnecessary, frequently produces unneeded and unnecessarily restrictive hospitalization and undermines the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.

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