Good Question: Forcing criminals to get psychiatric help?

November 27, 2017 06:25 AM

There has been a lot of talk recently about mental health and mass shootings. A question a lot of you have, are courts doing enough to get criminals the help they need before problems escalate? It's the subject of this week's Good Question report with Pat Taney.

You've heard it before. Days after a mass shooting, it all comes out. People who knew the suspected shooter say there were warning signs and ask why anything wasn't done before.

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Devin Kelley committed several crimes, even escaped a mental hospital, five years before he opened fire, killing more than two dozen people at a Texas church.

Closer to home, William Spengler killed his own grandmother, served prison time, and was released on unsupervised parole. He later went on to shoot four firefighters, killing two of them in West Webster in 2012.

Both men accused of atrocities, both had warning signs and faced accusations, although never proven, of being mentally unfit. Today, the courts do try to get defendants help if a judge suspects mental problems.

We reached out to News10NBC legal analyst and retired NYS Supreme Court Justice Joseph Valentino for clarity on this.

Taney: When can a judge force a defendant to get mental health help? 

Valentino: There are a couple of times they can. After arraignment, if the judge perceives the way a defendant acts or speaks the judge may ask the defense attorney to step forward and say do you think I should order a mental health examination? It's called a socio legal examination.

After a person is sentenced for committing a crime, a judge may also require the person get help.

"The judge can include that the person participate in mental health treatment," said Valentino. 

That order is typically a part of their condition of probation.

In New York State, there is also a mental health court which handles criminal cases involving suspects who have mental problems.

But what about others who are suspected of being mentally unfit but have no criminal histories?

People like Holly Colino, accused of randomly shooting and killing a mother in Brockport. Colino's social media profile had a history of warning signs of possible mental health problems but before the shooting, she was never in real legal trouble.

Taney: What options do I have if, let’s say, I know someone, a family member or a friend that is unstable. What can I do through the courts?

Valentino: Unless there's a crime there's not much you can do.

Unless you're a guardian, legally it's hard, if not impossible to force someone to get help you may think they need.

Valentino urges people to call police when they notice something isn't right, even if it's a family member.

"Report to police actively. If you feel or see someone doing something strange, shooting their dog, beating their wife.  Don't sit by. That should be reported so that maybe that person does have a mental problem and they can get help," he said.


Pat Taney

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