Competency exam increase strains system in Detroit area
Requests for mental evaluations for criminal defendants — commonly known as competency exams — are on the rise in Metro Detroit courts, creating a strain on the state mental health facility that conducts them.
Since 2012, the number of evaluations ordered has increased more than 20 percent, according to data from the Forensic Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ypsilanti, where the competency exams are conducted. The center’s budget for 2017 is $81.2 million.
The center conducted 8,212 mental competency exams for courts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties in the past five years. Last year, 1,874 exams were done, up from 1,475 in 2012.
“There has been a remarkable increase,” said Dr. Donna Rinnas, director of evaluation services for the Forensics Center.
Rinnas said the surge in requests has created a logjam of cases.
Evaluations can take two to three months to complete, but officials are working to cut down on the delays, she said.
“We had an extensive wait list, which we’ve been able to cut back,” Rinnas said. “The department has made that a priority.”
Solutions include offering overtime to psychologists and other staff members who conduct the competency examinations.
The increase in the center’s caseload has led to delays in court proceedings and has prosecutors and defense attorneys concerned.
Mark Reene, the director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, said the bottleneck is having a “significant impact on the justice system, crime victims and defendants.”
He said the delays cause additional frustration for crime victims who have to show up to testify twice if a hearing is adjourned.
But in many cases, an evaluation can’t be avoided, Reene said — if there’s reason to believe a defendant may not be fit to stand trial, a competency exam must be ordered.
Such tests have been conducted in some of Metro Detroit’s biggest murder cases, including one in which a Dearborn Heights man, Gregory Green, killed his two younger daughters and his teenaged stepchildren last September inside the family’s home.
Green was given a competency examination in October. The evaluation indicated Green was competent to stand trial, and he pleaded guilty in February to murdering the four children. Green was sentenced to 47-102 years in prison by Judge Dana Hathaway of Wayne County Circuit Court.
Green’s exam wasn’t his first, either. He also requested an evaluation in 1991 when he was charged with stabbing his pregnant wife, Tonya, to death. Green was convicted and served 16 years in prison; the results of that exam were not available in his court file.
Reene said he believes the growing demand for competency exams results from a lack of resources to treat the mentally ill.
“This really is not a surprise,” he said. “There just aren’t enough of the necessary services available. The (delay) can be very, very frustrating, depending on what side of the courtroom you sit on.”
Metro Detroit defense attorney Lillian Diallo said many of the defendants who are undergoing competency exams have mental illnesses that have not been diagnosed.
“There is a whole jail system of people who are undiagnosed, untreated or have been diagnosed and (are) not being treated,” she said. “You start seeing things that the safety net might not be able to catch. (Defendants) are not being treated. They are being shuffled through the system.”
Diallo said lawyers have a “duty” to request a competency examination when they are not certain of a client’s ability to understand and to take part in his or her own defense.
Sometimes, she said, it is difficult for attorneys to communicate with defendants who demonstrate obvious signs that they might be mentally ill or unable to understand what is taking place in court.
“When you talk to them, you don’t understand what they don’t understand,” Diallo said. “They have to be able to assist in their defense.”
Birmingham psychiatrist Dr. Gerald Shiener, who has conducted many competency exams, said the increase in demand results from the “underfunding and dismantling” of Michigan’s mental health care system.
Shiener said the increasing availability of firearms coupled with the lack of treatment for the mentally ill is causing a “perfect storm” of violent crimes that are clogging the justice system.
Debate continues on whether defendants who exhibit extremely violent behavior are correctly diagnosed by the tests.
Michigan law states that a defendant is deemed competent to stand trial if the person is able to assist their lawyer in their defense by their ability to perform tasks “reasonably” necessary to prepare for their defense for their trial. Conversely, the defendant is considered incompetent if their mental condition makes them incapable of understanding the court proceedings.
In one especially notorious case, Mitchelle Blair was sentenced to life in prison in 2015 for killing two of her children and placing them in a freezer in the family’s home. Blair was ordered to undergo a competency exam but refused a criminal responsibility exam, which determines the person’s state of mind during the alleged crime.
After her competency exam, at least one doctor declared Blair, 38, fit to stand trial, but the defendant objected and insisted during a hearing that she wanted to plead guilty, which she eventually did.
“This (exam) is irrelevant,” Blair said at the time. “I know my rights, I’m pleading to life in prison.”
She eventually was allowed to plead guilty.
Shiener, who performed a competency exam on Blair, determined she was competent to stand trial.
“She understood the charges. The roles of the people in the courtroom. She understood the penalty,” Shiener said.
In some cases, defendants are found incompetent and treated before they are tested again to see if their competency has been restored. Michigan has 19 months before a person can be deemed permanently incompetent.
That individual can continue to be treated until his or her competency is restored. In rare cases, criminal charges can be dropped eventually if a defendant is not found competent.
In the case of Detroit mom Deanna Minor, whose 2-year-old son was found dead in her apartment near Wayne State University in May 2016, an exam in August found her incompetent to stand trial. Case workers had complained that the mom, in her late 20s, was acting irrationally weeks before the boy was found dead in a bedroom of the apartment on Trumbull Avenue.
Minor has been charged with felony murder, second-degree murder, first- and second-degree child abuse and failure to report a dead body in connection with her child’s death. She is due back in court in August.