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Mental Capacity and Sex Crimes Criminal Defense

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Most people accused of a sex crime have one of two options when making their cases in court. They can have their lawyers enter a plea of innocent or guilty depending on factors like the evidence against them, prior criminal histories, and eyewitness testimonies.

However, these two plea options may not adequately apply to the cases of people accused of sex crimes who also are found to have a mental defect like schizophrenia. In these instances, the mental capacity of such defendants could change the criminal defense they and their lawyers bring to court.

The Role of Insanity or Mental Incapacity Pleas

The federal government along with most states allow for defendants who suffer from a mental defect to plead not guilty to sex crimes by reason of either insanity or mental incapacity. When someone uses either of these defenses, he or she essentially suffered from a mental disease or defect at the time of the crime was committed that removed his or her liability for his or her actions.

While most states allow for applicable sex crime defendants to use the insanity defense for their cases, a few like Kansas and Montana prohibit the use of an insanity plea in a criminal defense. Instead, those accused of sex crimes in this state could use the argument of suffering from diminished mental capacity at the time of the crime.

Defendants who are eligible to use either defense by meeting the prescribed legal criteria for insanity or mental incapacity typically are shown more leniency by the court. If they can prove they genuinely suffer from a condition like schizophrenia or severe autism that diminishes their understanding of the crime and its consequences, they could instead be sentenced to prolonged mental health treatment rather than to a state or federal prison.

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Criticisms and Exceptions to the Mental Incapacity Defense

While this type of defense has helped many deserving sex crime defendants avoid prison time, it is not without its share of criticism. In fact, opponents of the mental incapacity defense argue that it could easily be misused by people who genuinely are not deserving of defending themselves with it. It could allow dangerous sex criminals to escape justice and put the community at risk once they are released.

Other critics say the defense takes away from public resources needed for legitimate mental illness programs. The money diverted to facilities where convicted sex offenders with alleged mental incapacity are treated could instead go to public mental health services offered by the county or state.

Finally, critics point out that the mental incapacity or insanity defense does not distinguish between classic diagnoses of psychosis, like schizophrenia, and character pathology, like antisocial behavior. They argue that people with character pathology could possibly serve time in prison rather than a mental health facility after they have been found guilty and do not need to receive the same treatment that people with psychosis receive.

Even with the criticisms leveled against the mental incapacity defense, proponents note that it does come with a few exceptions under the law. For example, the argument of mental incapacity cannot be used if the defendant committed a sex crime while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Further, it allows for some defendants’ sentencing to be delayed until after they receive mental health treatment and are deemed legally sound by the court.

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At-risk Individuals and Sex Crimes

Proponents of the mental incapacity defense argue that it is necessary to protect at-risk individuals who may not be able to understand their actions while committing a sex crime. Specifically, along with protecting people with schizophrenia or psychosis, these laws also could safeguard people who have:

  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Autism
  • Learning disorders
  • Auditory processing disorders

People with these disorders may not understand the implications of their actions if they commit a sex crime because they may lack basic skills like:

  • Understanding consequences
  • Understanding emotions
  • Sex education like consent, appropriate touch, and healthy expressions of sexuality
  • Seeking help from peers or professionals
  • Moral reasoning (understanding right from wrong)
  • Identifying and becoming involved in recreational activities
  • Other skills needed to integrate into the community successfully

Further, people with diminished mental capacities who are required to register as sex offenders in their communities may likewise fail to appreciate the intended consequences of their convictions.

The law enforcement officials, social workers, or others supervising them could put them at risk by infantilizing the offenders, failing to appreciate the offenders’ need for repetition and specificity, or not acknowledging the offenders’ impaired verbal and reading comprehension skills.

Factors at Sentencing

Before someone uses a mental incapacity or insanity defense in court, it is important to understand the difference between the two. In states that permit it, a successful insanity defense typically will result in a verdict of not guilty. The defendant would then be sentenced to prolonged treatment at a court-approved mental health facility.

A defense of mental incapacity or diminished mental capacity typically results in the accused being convicted of a lesser charge. The defendant may be sentenced to probation, a shorter jail sentence, or mental health treatment at an approved facility.

Further, mental incapacity defenses many times are treated differently at state and federal courts. Some states adhere to federal standards regarding this defense while others have their own sentencing guidelines for it. Lawyers representing people who want to use this defense typically advise for or against it depending on the court’s sentencing guidelines for it.

Finally, when meting out punishments for sex crimes, judges will typically look at factors like whether or not the defendant could control himself or herself at the time of the crime, if he or she could think clearly, and if the defendant understood that his or her actions were wrong.
Certain mental illnesses like schizophrenia or severe depression may play a part in the defendant’s sentencing because they can reveal to what extent the accused knew what he or she was doing was against the law.

The mental incapacity or insanity defense can help mentally ill defendants avoid punishments that are not adequate for their level of understanding or awareness of the committed sex crime. It allows for mental health treatment for people who suffer from psychosis like schizophrenia. It also protects people who lack the adult mental capacity to realize their actions were unlawful.


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