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How Does A Diagnosis Of Mental Illness Affect Your Criminal Case?


It seems like everyone is talking about mental health and mental illness these days, but the relationship between the criminal justice system and defendants’ mental health remains poorly understood.  Initiatives that treat substance use disorder as an illness rather than a predisposition toward criminal behavior help people charged with drug crimes achieve sobriety and are, in the long term, less expensive than more punitive responses to drug use.  In the popular imagination, mental illness is linked to violent behavior; stereotypes like Norman Bates of Psycho and its derivatives die hard.  Meanwhile, people with a history of mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than they are to commit such crimes, and yet people with a documented history of psychiatric illness are more likely to receive prison sentences than people without a history of mental illness who are convicted of the same offense.  The bottom line is that everyone, regardless of health history, has the right to representation by a criminal defense lawyer if accused of a crime.  Here, our Miami criminal defense lawyer explains some ways in which a defendant’s mental health history may affect his or her criminal case.

The Aventura Mall Koi Pond Incident

Earlier in December, Canin Sanders of Miami Gardens went to the Aventura Mall and poured a combination of alcohol, soap, and bleach into the koi pond.  As the fish rose to the surface, disoriented and in search of breathable water, Sanders allegedly tried to pet them.  Mall security guards approached, and Sanders walked away at a brisk pace.  The mall security guards alerted police as they pursued Sanders, and police officers detained him outside the Zara store on the first floor of the mall.  Approximately 20 of the 50 fish in the pond had died by the time rescue efforts began, but the rest were returned to the pond after it was cleaned and its water was replaced.  The cost of pond cleaning, veterinary care for the surviving koi, and purchase of new koi to replace the ones that died is approximately $25,000.

Sanders, 30, is facing misdemeanor charges for criminal mischief, animal cruelty, and resisting arrest without violence.  At a hearing, Sanders’ mother told the judge that her son has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is undergoing treatment.

Defendants With Diagnosed Mental Illnesses Are More Likely to Receive Prison Sentences, Even for Misdemeanors

Sanders’ case is still pending as of late December 2022, and, like all defendants in criminal cases, he is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.  The fact that his mother disclosed his schizophrenia diagnosis to the judge does not automatically mean that the court will drop the charges against him.  Mental illness is not a “get out of jail free” card.  A group of researchers at the Office of Mental Health in Albany, New York published a study in the journal Psychiatric Services, in which they reported that, regardless of the nature of the offense, defendants with a documented history of mental illness are more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison than defendants with no history of psychiatric illness who are charged with and convicted of the same crime.  In misdemeanor cases, defendants with a history of mental illness were more than 50 percent more likely to get a jail sentence than defendants without a history of mental illness.

Is the Insanity Defense Real?

You may have heard of defendants pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, whether in movies or true crime stories.  Is it still possible to change the outcome of your criminal case by admitting that you have a mental illness?  It is still possible to use the insanity defense, but in fact, defendants rarely use it.  Once you base your plea on your diagnosis of mental illness, you are giving the court the right to interfere in your treatment more than it would otherwise have the right to do.  If the judge deems it appropriate, he or she can order you to remain in a psychiatric hospital or other inpatient facility indefinitely.  In theory, there are cases where pleading guilty would get you a ten-year prison sentence, but pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, and getting acquitted, would mean a lifetime of court-ordered inpatient psychiatric treatment.  It may or may not turn out that your mental health history is relevant to your case; this varies on a case-by-case basis.  You should be honest with your criminal defense lawyer about your mental health history, as it may help you choose the best strategy for your criminal case.

Contact Our Criminal Defense Attorneys

A South Florida criminal defense lawyer can help you if you are facing criminal charges after receiving a mental illness diagnosis.  Contact Ratzan & Faccidomo in Miami, Florida for a free, confidential consultation about your case.





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