New study’s findings on judges and mental disorder sentences

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City released a new study last week, concluding that judges impose lower sentences when the defendant presents a biological explanation of a mental disorder. The national study could have implications for criminal defense strategies.

Researchers asked over 180 judges from 19 states about a hypothetical case based on a real prosecution in Georgia. The case involved an aggravated battery conviction against a mentally impaired defendant. The study focused on how the judges resolved the case, particularly with regards to the sentence imposed.

The study recorded an average sentence of 14 years. However, judges who heard bio-mechanical explanations of the hypothetical defendant’s psychopathic disorder tended to reduce the sentence by an entire year to 13 years.

Thus, the study concludes that explanations of the biology or mechanics of a mental impairment are likely to secure, on average, a one year reduction in sentence.

While this research only addresses broad general trends, it does suggest the encouraging conclusion that judges are receptive to evidence of mental impairments.

In most cases, mental defects or impairments do not entirely absolve defendants of guilt. But impairments do often function as mitigating circumstances and an effective defense strategy should carefully consider how a defendant’s mental history fits into the broader picture.

Source: Deseret News, “Study: Judges reduce sentences when mental disorder explanations are heard,” Benjamin Wood, Aug. 16, 2012

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