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Examining the Role of Race and Ethnicity in Competency to Stand Trial Evaluations

7 December 2007


Forensic evaluators, a specially trained subset of mental health professionals, conduct competency to stand trial evaluations and serve an important function in the criminal justice system. Through the reports they write, they provide the court with information about the mental state of the defendant on trial, which is then used to ensure that the defendant understands the charges and is able to participate in the defense process. This assurance of competence helps to uphold the standards of our justice system. Because fairness is an important aspect of these standards, and ethnic minority individuals have in the past been victims of unfair evaluation procedures at the hands of mental health professionals, it is important to assess whether race and ethnicity play a role in these evaluations and, if so, what role they play. In this study, seven hypotheses were tested relating to the outcome of these evaluations, race and ethnicity, and a third related variable, diagnosis. Although there was no statistically significant evidence of a direct relationship between ethnicity and the outcome of the competency evaluations, many hypotheses related to this relationship were in the expected direction. For example, African American defendants were less likely than Caucasian defendants to be found competent and more likely to be diagnosed with psychotic disorders. In addition, this is the first study to include Latino defendants as a comparison group of ethnic minority defendants, as previous studies have looked primarily at African American defendants. It was found that Latino defendants received different diagnoses than Caucasian defendants, such that Latino defendants were less likely to be diagnosed with any Axis I disorder and were more likely to receive no diagnosis on Axis 1. No differences were found between these two groups with regard to the diagnosis of Axis II disorders. Combining the results of this study with the body of literature already compiled on this issue, it is likely that relationships between defendants' ethnicity, diagnoses, and competency status exist, but in a small and indirect manner such that it is difficult to detect in small-scale studies. Future research would best be directed toward large-scale projects to look for small, yet potentially systematic differences in the competency evaluations of ethnic minority and ethnic majority defendants.


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