Mental Health in Illinois Criminal Defense Cases

Schaumburg Criminal Defense Lawyers

With a modest estimate of one-third of Cook County inmates battling mental illness, mental health among criminal defendants in Illinois is a critical, but often overlooked, concern. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that 25-40 percent of mentally ill Americans will see the inside of a jail cell at some point in their lives, perhaps for crimes they did not understand they committed.

Illinois law allows for an insanity plea, a high standard that is not available in most cases involving mentally ill criminal defendants. Instead, most mentally ill criminal defendants will plead “guilty but mentally ill,” or enter the system without consideration of their underlying, debilitating mental illnesses. There are ways to successfully defend mentally ill individuals that have been accused of committing crimes—such tactics require the knowledge of experienced criminal defense attorneys who can help you navigate a complex system that undervalues the significance of mental illness in our society.

Insanity Versus Fitness to Stand Trial

Every crime, as written into law, has two components: 1) the actus reus, or, the specific conduct that constitutes a crime, and 2) the mens rea, or, the underlying mental state accompanying the commission of the crime. Mental illness affects the latter—the mens rea. The idea is that a mentally ill person may not be able to fully appreciate their conduct and, as such, should not be held criminally liable for their actions. This is particularly true under the insanity defense.

The Insanity Defense

When people think of a mentally ill criminal defendant, they often automatically think of the insanity defense. “Insanity,” as a legal term, means “the lack of a substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of one’s conduct as a result of a mental disorder or mental defect.” When a criminal defendant is deemed insane, there will be a judgment of acquittal. Determining a person is insane under the specific terms of the law, however, is a very high standard and is seldom successfully pled.

Insanity is an affirmative defense to a crime. This means that even if the allegations against the defendant are true, a secondary factor (here, insanity) makes the defendant not legally responsible for the crime. Most often, it is the defendant that brings forth the defense of insanity. At a trial, the burden of proving that a defendant committed the crime rests with the state, or the prosecution. However, when the insanity plea is raised, the defendant must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity. The state must still prove the “elements” (the breakdown of the actus reus and mens rea) to the judge/jury beyond a reasonable doubt, but the burden of proving insanity rests on the defendant.

If the defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, they are not automatically released back into society. They are transferred to a state mental institution for a term of years not to exceed the sentence they would have received if they had been found guilty of the underlying crime they were accused of.

Insanity is a complete defense to a crime. However, mental illness considerations also govern whether an individual is considered “fit” to stand trial. Fitness to stand trial is a different standard than determining someone legally insane. Under Illinois law, a defendant is presumed to be fit to stand trial, plead, or be sentenced. A criminal defendant is considered “unfit if, because of his mental or physical condition, he is unable to understand the nature and purpose of the proceedings against him or to assist in his defense.”

Fitness to Stand Trial

As with the insanity defense, concerns regarding a criminal defendant’s fitness to stand trial are usually raised by the defendant. If raised, a qualified expert will be appointed to evaluate the defendant to determine their fitness to proceed with court. The state must demonstrate that the defendant is fit to stand trial. This determination may be made by court hearings, determination by the judge or jury, treatment or rehabilitation efforts that may restore an unfit defendant to a “fit” status, and may involve temporary release. A criminal defendant deemed unfit to proceed with trial may: 1) be given accommodations in the courtroom to allow the case to continue; 2) attend their trial after a showing that their fitness is not critical to the proceedings; 3) be released to obtain treatment; 4) have the charges against them dismissed; and/or 5) be transferred to the custody of the Department of Human Services for treatment, assessment, or evaluation. In certain instances, a criminal defendant may plead “guilty but mentally ill” which will change the course of sentencing to provide necessary treatment for the individual. The options available for pleading are, of course, determined by the individual’s fitness to plead or stand trial, personal needs, and the available resources in the jurisdiction of the proceedings.

Schaumburg, Illinois Criminal Defense and Trial Lawyers

At Glasgow & Olsson, our skilled Schaumburg criminal defense attorneys are sensitive, patient, and understanding that each of our clients have unique needs that require us to tailor your criminal defense accordingly. If you or anyone you know has mental health concerns and has been charged with a crime, we can help. Though the procedures for mental health defenses are difficult to navigate, we have the knowledge of the system necessary to help you get through this difficult time. Call our office today at (847) 577-8700 to learn more about your legal rights.