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Mental Health Problems and the Criminal Justice System

Mental Health Problems and the Criminal Justice System

I have had the troubling situation lately of having to deal with a number of clients with mental impairment. Specifically, I have had to three cases in the last year where a client was charged with a crime or crimes and they were unable to either grasp the nature of the criminal proceedings; unable to assist in their own defense; or, more commonly, they were unable to communicate with me. Or at least I was unable to communicate with them.


Insanity in California requires some very specific findings. In order for a defendant in a criminal case to be deemed “insane” the defendant must be either unable to understand the nature of his criminal proceedings or he must be unable to assist in his own defense. The problem for me is that some clients have mental health issues but still understand their situation and can assist me with their defense. This normally takes the form of answering questions and being able to communicate with me. But what happens when a client is not legally “insane” but still refuses or is unwilling or unable to communicate with me?

Declaring a Doubt and Penal Code Section 1368

When I have a client who I believe is mentally infirm but is not legally “insane” I may still be able to get my client the help they need by “declaring a doubt”. If I have a doubt as to my client’s mental competency, I declare a doubt under Penal Code Section 1368. Upon telling the judge that I have a doubt about my client’s competency, the judge will immediately recess the criminal proceedings and appoint a psychiatrist or psychologist to evaluate the defendant. The doctor will then meet with the defendant, evaluate him and write a report regarding the defendant’s competency.

Should the doctor’s report determine the defendant to be incompetent, the defendant will be ordered to seek mental health treatment either in or out of custody. If the defendant is lucky enough to be out of custody, he can seek help in community based treatment, either in or outpatient in nature. If the defendant is in custody he will be sent to a state run mental health facility. The maximum amount of time the defendant can be confined in the mental hospital is dictated by the charges in the underlying case. The more serious the crime, the longer the defendant could remain in the hospital. At some point, if the hospital says the defendant is no longer incompetent, the defendant would be returned to court and criminal charges could be resumed.

If you have questions about dealing with mental health issues in the criminal justice system, or if you want a free case evaluation, call me:

Attorney Jeffrey Vallens (818) 783-5700 or (888) 764-4340 or email me at:

Please visit my sites for more information: or

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Law Office of Jeffrey S. Vallens - San Fernando Valley Criminal Defense Attorney
Located at 16030 Ventura Boulevard, Suite 470, Encino, CA 91436.
Phone: (818) 783-5700.
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