Psychologists Assess Competency to Stand Trial

By Joseph Frey

Determining competency to stand trial allows for the postponement of criminal proceedings for defendants who are unable to participate in their defense due to a mental or physical disorder or retardation. Courts appoint psychologists to conduct forensic mental health assessments. The defendant must be found to be oriented to time and place with some recollection of events. Additionally, defendants must demonstrate sufficient ability to consult with their attorneys with a reasonable degree of rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against them. The results of the competency evaluation influence a judge’s decision, most of whom concur with recommendations issued by the forensic psychologist. About 20% of felony defendants are found not competent to stand trial.

Forensic psychologists maintain no consensus on how competency evaluations should be conducted, though most guidelines and publications acknowledge the inadequacy of traditional clinical interviews. Some psychologists administer traditional psychological tests, but instruments specifically designed to measure competency are now widely available. For example, researchers at the MacArthur Foundation developed the MacCAT-CA, which many in the field view as promising.

About the Author

A Licensed Psychologist in independent practice, Joseph Frey conducts forensic consultations, including competency-to-stand-trial assessments. Dr. Frey also provides psychological consultations at Partners in Achievement.