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Standing Trial: Mental Health Paired with Racial Disparity

Mental Health Neglected in the Justice System

There is a strong trend in which mental health is not properly represented in a court of law; individuals are constantly put into situations where their mental health is not considered when discussing the processing of their judicial trials. In reality, not only can one’s “mental competency” explain occurrences in a crime, but it can also determine if an individual is able to fully comprehend their case.

In addition, accommodations for mental illness are not often presented in a court of law. As a result, an individual may be easily pressured into a guilty confession due to their mental state. In other cases, certain behaviors are seen as physical evidence of a person’s guilt to a crime, rather than behaviors linked to their mental illness. In both situations, the predetermined behaviors of an individual due to their mental illness is used against them, rather than accommodated with.

In what ways does race play into how mental illness is approached differently during a trial?

To properly assess the mental health of an individual and how their mental state may influence their trial or the crime they potentially committed (or are currently being trialed for), a psychiatric evaluation must be performed. This evaluation can then be provided by the defendant either to create certain accommodations in the courtroom or to bring sense to why the crime was committed to ensure a justified yet fair verdict.

Research shows that the lack of courtroom accommodations disproportionately affects minorities as well. According to the Old Dominion University (ODU), Black Americans are less likely to receive a psychiatric evaluation to assess the individual's mental state during the time in which the offense had taken place compared to white defendants (ODU, 2019). The National Institute of Corrections furthers this correlation: “This research also found strong and consistent evidence that African American defendants are less likely than non-African Americans (this group was almost entirely Caucasian) to receive psychiatric evaluations to determine mental status at the time of the offense, despite statistical controls for mental health and criminal history (see Figure 3).” While, among African American and non-African American defendants with an apparent mental illness, the rate of psychiatric evaluations were equal, among those without an apparent mental illness, non-African Americans aresignificantly more likely than African Americans to be psychiatrically evaluated: 46 percent versus 31 percent.

With the lack of mental health screenings offered, less racial minorities are properly treated and accommodate for their mental health, thus continuing to make the courtroom process more skewed against minority defendents.

What can be done?

Potential solutions include the following:

  • The offering of psychiatric exams when deemed fit and requested by a lawyer

  • The presenting of this exam and examples of mental illness to jurors when evaluating the behavior of the defendant

  • Secondary judgment of the racial biases of a jury

  • The opportunity for diversion to a mental institute rather than the death penalty for those who are mentally impaired

  • Mental health resources provided in prison being more available to all, regardless of race

Most importantly, in order to properly address mental health and illness within the justice system, more research must be conducted. Many of the records regarding mental health resources are decades old, and to better provide adequate resources to those who need them, we need to constantly be updating our understanding of the topics at hand.


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