Courts place a lot of weight on psychiatric exams, using them to determine whether someone is fit to stand trial, if they may qualify for a mental health diversion program, if they are not guilty by reason of insanity or if they were in their right mind when they committed a crime. But a recent scientific study makes defense lawyers in Mira Mesa question how much weight should really be placed on the results of some court psychiatric tests.
What’s the Problem with Court Psychiatric Tests?
To put it simply, while there are some objective psychiatric tests used in court that have been subjected to sufficient peer review, researchers have found that many tests used to determine a defendant’s mental health are based on pure “junk science” and have no scientific backing at all. After looking at 364 psychiatric assessment exams often used in court, the researchers discovered that around one third of them were not scientifically accurate or reliable. In fact, a tenth of these tests had not even been scientifically tested at all.
Even of the tests that had been subjected to proper peer review, only 40% had favorable scientific ratings. This is largely because many of these tests are entirely subjective and based on the opinion of the person administering the test. 25% of people who evaluate a defendant’s mental health don’t even use any test and instead base the assessments they give the court solely on their discussion with the defendant. Ideally, a court psychiatric test should have the same results no matter who gives the test.
Why are These Tests Being Allowed in Court?
Just as blood splatter science has proven to be dodgy at best but still used in court, most court psychiatric tests are still permitted to be admitted to court largely because they have already been allowed for use in other trials. This is a legal concept known as precedent, which basically means that because this has been established as a sound legal practice before it can be used in future trials without intense scrutiny. It can be very difficult to challenge something with this much precedent and, in fact, few defense lawyers in Mira Mesa and elsewhere even keep up on psychiatric journals enough to know which tests have been peer-reviewed and which haven’t.
During the course of their research, the team looking at these tests even found that court psychiatric tests are challenged based on their scientific validity only 5% of the time and less than 1/3 of these challenges were successful. This could be because attorneys and judges don’t fully understand the science behind these tests in the first place or because they simply believe their challenges will be denied because the tests already have strong legal precedent even if they have minimal scientific validity.
How to Fix the Problem
The researchers say they believe a number of criteria should be met before a psychiatric exam should be admitted in court:
- Psychologists must choose the right assessment for the issue in question. In other words, evaluating someone’s relationship with their family doesn’t answer whether they are sound to stand trial.
- The tests used must be objective, meaning they give the same results every time, no matter who administers it or interprets its results.
- Finally, the test must actually measure the metric it is supposed to measure.
What Defense Lawyers in Mira Mesa Should Do
Because the researchers understand that defense lawyers in Mira Mesa don’t always know whether a test would meet these criteria, they advise attorneys to do research into these tests when possible and to consider hiring psychologists as trial consultants in situations where court psychiatric tests play a critical role in the outcome of the case.
In some cases, however, psychological profiles are very useful when submitted by the defense to show documented mental health issues may have impaired their decision making. A psychological assessment may also show the defendant is now getting therapy or treatment to deal with his or her underlying mental health problems.
If you have been accused of any crime, it is critical your defense lawyers in Mira Mesa are willing to go the extra mile to understand everything that can help your case. You can schedule a free consultation with Peter M. Liss by calling (760) 643-4050.
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