What Happens When a Mentally Ill Person Gets Arrested?

Find out what is considered legal, and what is not.

What Happens When a Mentally Ill Person Gets Arrested?

America has a mental health problem that, to outsiders, can look a lot like a criminal problem. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports almost 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women who are booked into jails have “a serious mental health condition.” While some people believe sending a sick person to jail means they’ll finally “get help,” that’s often not the case. Instead, the mentally ill may languish in prison for longer than those who aren’t suffering from a mental health disorder.

Mentally Ill inmates and legal representation

There’s a stereotype that mentally ill people are more likely to be violent and unhinged. But research indicates that someone dealing with mental illness is more likely to be victimized by violent crime than to commit it. Severe mental illness can increase the risk of committing a crime in some cases, as can other factors like substance abuse.

Unfortunately, police rarely receive proper training on dealing with mentally ill populations. A family may call 911, and ask for their relative to be taken to a hospital. But instead, police might find a reason to arrest the person, and take them to jail. In some situations, police have shot and killed mentally ill people.

The criminal justice system is not well-equipped to deal with these things. You’ve no doubt heard that a person who is arrested needs to assert their right to contact a lawyer. That contact is even more important for someone who has an untreated mental illness. In many cases, a local lawyer is someone’s best shot at getting the treatment they need. That means if you’re arrested in Denver, you need to immediately contact a criminal lawyer in Denver.

Is it possible to plead insanity

Criminal lawyers have connections that inmates don’t. They have a working relationship with prosecutors, and they know how the system works. They should also have a rough idea of how likely it is that an insanity plea will be successful. Pleading insanity is popular in crime procedurals, but it’s more complicated in real life. The legal definition of insanity doesn’t always line up with a psychiatric diagnosis. And getting declared not guilty by reason of insanity is a lot harder in some states than others.

While a lawyer can’t guarantee that such a defense will be successful, they can file a motion for a mental evaluation. That may sound scary, but an inmate isn’t going to get the help they need without being seen by a professional first. The professional can look at the nature of the illness, and decide what, if any, impact it had on the crime the inmate is accused of committing.

In many states, an insanity defense hinges on questions like “Did the defendant know what they were doing was wrong?” If the mental illness kept them from realizing that robbing a bank was wrong, then they might be able to plead insanity. If not, then they may be out of luck on that front.

But a good lawyer can still ask for mental health treatment to be a part of the sentence. This may be more likely for non-violent crimes or crimes committed by juveniles. Some judges are more willing to order residential treatment for teens than they are for adults. For one thing, young people are generally seen as more capable of rehabilitation. It’s not always a fair assumption, but it’s a common one.

Serving out a jail sentence isn’t fun for anyone, but for mentally ill people, the stakes are much higher. They need good legal representation, and a fair amount of luck. If they get both of those things, they just might be able to depart the criminal justice system in better shape than when they were first arrested.

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Tobias Gillot
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