By Jim Misunas
TOPEKA — Pawnee County Attorney John Settle is scheduled to testify Tuesday against House Bill 2584, which would revamp the way defendants are judged to be mentally competent to stand trial.
Settle argues the system in place works well to determine whether defendants are mentally competent to stand trial.
“Kansas courts do not find any criminal defendants competent to stand trial unless a defendant meets the strict standard set by years of Kansas appellate case law and well established statutory procedures,” Settle wrote.
He has served as Pawnee County Attorney since 1995 and is past president of the Kansas County and District Attorneys Association. He served on the Criminal Law Advisory Board of directors from 1996-2004.
House Bill 2584 proposes to turn over mental evaluations of defendants by Jan. 1, 2016 to individuals credentialed by a group called the Institute of Kansas Forensics Examiners. Those evaluators will have completed 24 hours of continuing education in forensics.
“The procedure (they are) trying to regulate has been in place at the Larned State Security Hospital (LSSH) for more than 30 years,” Settle wrote in a memo to Kansas legislators Mitch Holmes and John Ewy. “The staff at LSSH is by far the most experienced and qualified forensic examiners in Kansas. The evaluation process is well established within the field of forensic psychology and LSSH utilizes a team approach and 24-hour observation of defendants over a period of up to 60 days.
“The bill simply overlooks Kansas’ expert witness statutes and the years of case law that have established clear standards for the qualification of a witness as an expert in any field, forensic psychology included,” Settle wrote.
Settle will testify before the House Standing Committee on Judiciary, which Rep. Lance Kinzer serves as chair. The bill is scheduled for hearing before the House Judiciary Committee at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“House Bill 2584 is a self-serving and unnecessary bill that will put the safety of every Kansas citizen at risk, and is obviously bad public policy,” Settle wrote.
A similar bill to change the face of judging mentally competency had previously been proposed in 2011 as House Bill 2334 and House Bill 2497 in 2012.
“The proponents have tried in the past to claim that Kansas’ competency to stand trial statutes and lack of capacity defense statutes need to be changed,” Settle wrote. “The reason they claim change is needed is because Kansas is finding too many defendants competent to stand trial and not finding enough defendants “not guilty because of mental disease or defect.”
The Institute for Kansas Forensic Examiners features a governing board with lawyers, psychologists and the Douglass County sheriff. Dr. David Mourille, a Shawnee psychologist, serves as vice chair of the organization.
According to its website, The Institute for Kansas Forensic Examiners, “is an interdisciplinary organization humanizing courts and society by educating professionals and providing specialized services. The Institute works to balance justice and public saftey (sic) with financial reality.”
Settle writes that the group exists to “study the state of existing forensic mental health law in the State of Kansas; and promote the improvement in the quality of forensic standards and practice in Kansas.”
Settle believes House Bill 2584, like its predecessors, “is terrible public policy that will do nothing but slow the criminal trial process, increase the cost of mental evaluations, confuse Kansas trial courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys, add to the backlog of criminal appellate cases and therefore thwart the interests of justice.
Settle proposed to make several points in his address to the House Judiciary Committee.
* “Section 1 of House Bill 2584 changes the definition of “incompetent to stand trial,” from the definition that has been in place for many years. The status of Kansas law regarding the question of “competency to stand trial” is well established and widely understood by Kansas Courts, defense attorneys and prosecutors.”
* “The change in the definition of “incompetent to stand trial” will result in more defendants being found “rot competent to stand trial” than in the past. Most of these defendants will pose a danger to themselves or others and will need to be housed and treated.”
* “Section 4 of House Bill 2584 sets forth specific training experience and educational criteria required before an evaluator can be appointed by a court.”
The Institute of Kansas Forensic Examiners would be responsible for credential all Kansas forensic examiners.
* “Section 6 of House Bill 2584 arbitrarily reduces the established time frame to conduct such evaluations with no clinical basis to support such a change. The current standard of 60 days or until the examination is completed is based upon years of practical experience.”
* “Section 6 (3) of House Bill 2584 will provide for a very poor quality evaluation as compared to an evaluation completed at the LSSH and is certainly not appropriate in a contested matter.”
* “The arbitrary time limits set throughout House Bill 2584 are logically impractical from a trial practice standpoint and will likely result in many serious criminal cases to become very difficult to successfully prosecute.”
House Bill 2584 can be read at: