The number of accused felons declared mentally incompetent to stand trial is rising in 10 of the nation’s 12 largest states, delaying local prosecutions and swamping state mental health and prison systems, reports USA Today. These defendants cost hundreds of millions of dollars to treat and house as local governments tighten budgets because of a slowing economy. Analysts attribute the increase to a lack of mental health care, judges’ increased openness to such claims, and strategies by defendants to try to avoid harsh punishment
Criminal defendants who do not understand legal proceedings against them are generally declared by judges to be incompetent for trial. Most are referred to mental health facilities and treated. The length of treatment varies from an average of three weeks in Virginia to more than nine months in Tennessee before they are deemed fit for trial or mental health experts determine they cannot be successfully treated. There is wide variation in how states track incompetency rulings, and some do not track them at all. Of the 12 most populous states, Texas reported a decline last year and New Jersey did not provide data. Florida, Ohio, and California were among states reporting increases.