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Mental Health and Criminal Defense

Law Office of Joseph M Pacella June 2, 2023

Young depressed woman talking to lady psychologist during sessionBeing accused of a crime can be one of the most stressful and debilitating experiences one can face. This stress can especially be compounded if the accused has an underlying mental health disorder. 

In the U.S., more than 1.2 million people with mental illness are incarcerated, meaning it's more important than ever to address the issues related to mental health and criminal justice. 

In this article, we'll be discussing the most common mental health disorders that intersect with convicted individuals—which include anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, bipolar disorder, and personality disorders.  

We'll explore the ways in which these disorders can impact a person's legal case and the importance of having a competent, compassionate lawyer on your side. 

Mental Health as a Defense 

Mental health disorders are often a sensitive and prevalent issue in criminal defense cases. There are several common mental health conditions that can influence the nature and outcome of a case—including schizophrenia, antisocial personality disorder, and more—because these disorders can impact a person's behavior, judgment, and their ability to understand the consequences of their actions.  

Mental health is a crucial aspect of our overall well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and behave, and it can have a significant impact on our ability to make sound decisions.  

When it comes to criminal defense cases, mental health can play a significant role in determining the outcome of the case. Can mental health be a defense for committing a crime? Not necessarily, but it can affect the outcome of the case. Let's take a closer look.  

Criminal Responsibility  

Criminal responsibility refers to the concept that each individual is responsible for their actions and that they must face the consequences of their actions. However, in cases involving mental health issues, the accused may not be fully capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. 

In such cases, the defense can argue that the accused lacked criminal responsibility due to their mental illness or defect, sometimes referred to as an "insanity defense."  

The defense would need to demonstrate that the accused's condition impaired their ability to appreciate the nature and quality of their actions or understand that what they did was morally or legally wrong. 


Competency refers to the ability and capacity of an individual to stand trial and participate in their defense. When a defendant is not competent, they cannot be tried in court. It is crucial to determine a defendant's competency early in any criminal defense case involving mental health issues. 

In most cases, a mental health professional can evaluate the accused to determine if they are competent to stand trial. In cases where the accused is not competent, they may be ordered to receive treatment until they are deemed competent to stand trial. 

Proving a Mental Health Claim  

The first step in proving a mental health claim in a criminal defense case is to hire the right attorney.  

Look for a lawyer who has experience in defending clients with mental health conditions. They should also be well-versed in mental health issues, and they should have access to reputable medical professionals who can provide credible evidence in court. 

Another step in proving mental health is to get a mental health evaluation from a reputable medical professional. The evaluation should be conducted by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist who can testify in court. The evaluation will help to determine the defendant's mental state before and during the crime. 

To prove mental health, you need to use credible evidence such as medical records, witness statements, and expert testimony. Medical records should include psychiatric evaluations, hospitalization records, and medication history. Witness statements should come from friends, family members, or co-workers who can attest to the defendant's mental health condition. 

In addition to using credible evidence, you also need to present a compelling story that explains the defendant's mental health condition. The story should highlight how the mental illness affected the defendant's state of mind and behavior before and during the crime. 

Sentencing and Rights of Prisoners With Mental Health Disorders 

Unfortunately, individuals with mental illness are often disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system—despite the sentencing rights of prisoners with mental health disorders that exist. 

Many of these individuals end up in prison because they didn’t receive adequate mental health treatment or support in their communities. Once incarcerated, they face a particularly difficult path toward rehabilitation.  

Although these individuals make up a significant portion of our prison population, many prisons are not equipped to handle their unique needs and, therefore, violate their rights. The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that prisoners receive adequate medical care, including mental health care. Unfortunately, many prisoners are denied access to mental health treatment, medication, or counseling. In some cases, they are placed in solitary confinement, which can exacerbate their symptoms and lead to further deterioration of their mental health.  

As a criminal defense attorney working in Springfield, Massachusetts, it’s my job to ensure that my clients receive the appropriate care and to push for alternative sentencing options that take their mental health into account.  

Protect Your Rights and Your Future  

Mental health disorders can be delicate and highly nuanced, and it is essential that individuals with such issues receive the proper diagnosis and treatment.  

As a criminal defense lawyer, I have more than 20 years of experience in the criminal justice system in and around Springfield, Massachusetts. I have an intimate understanding of mental health disorders and know how to effectively advocate for my clients who face these issues.  

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges and have a mental health disorder, contact me today. We will make sure your case receives the attention and care it deserves. I represent clients throughout the surrounding areas of Western and Central Massachusetts, including the neighborhoods of Northampton, Westfield, Amherst, and Palmer.