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Indiana psychologists question qualifications for insanity evaluations

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The Indiana Psychological Association tried to convince members of the Indiana General Assembly to make a key change to state law governing insanity evaluations Sept. 24, but legislators seemed skeptical of the need for a revision.

Representatives from the association offered their proposal during the Legislature’s Commission on Courts hearing at the Statehouse. The association wants to remove a requirement from the state statute that courts have to appoint at least one psychiatrist to assess criminal defendants who claim insanity.

Currently the law allows judges to appoint two or three professionals to the evaluation team, which can include a psychologist or a physician, but must include a psychiatrist.

Eliminating that requirement, the association maintained, would give judges more flexibility and help alleviate the problems caused by the shortage of psychiatrists available for evaluations. Delays occur in finding a psychiatrist and scheduling an appointment, leaving a defendant to wait in jail.

Questions from the commission indicated members were hesitant to remove psychiatrists from insanity evaluations because of their extensive medical training.  

Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson pointed to the growing role of medications and drugs in behavior and asked if psychologists know enough about pharmacology and illegal substances to evaluate a defendant and inform the court.

Psychologist Tom Barbera replied that not many psychologists have pursued that level of training. Both he and Fort Wayne psychologist Stephen Ross emphasized, however, that psychologists do receive an extensive amount of academic and clinical training before practicing.

Rep. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said he did not think a psychologist would be a “worthy substitute” for a psychiatrist because the former has no training in chemicals or the brain.

Indiana University School of Medicine associate professor of clinical psychiatry and certified forensic psychiatrist George Parker drew sharp contrasts between the training of psychiatrists and psychologists. He said psychiatrists are “uniquely qualified” to evaluate medication issues and physical conditions.

Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, said he was not aware that courts in Indiana were having trouble finding psychiatrists for insanity evaluations. He questioned if the shortage issue was not being manufactured.

Ross responded that while some counties in the state have plenty of psychiatrists, others do not. He noted his home of Allen County has many psychiatrists but only one does insanity evaluations for the court.

The IPA noted that in 2011 the General Assembly removed the requirement that at least one psychiatrist be appointed for the evaluation of a defendant’s competency to stand trial. Now, the association said, the Legislature needs to take the next step.

Again highlighting medical training, Parker said having psychiatrists involved in insanity determinations was important because of the retrospective nature of the evaluation, which draws upon medical training.

Also, he said, competency evaluations have a safe guard. Defendants who are found not competent to stand trial are not released from custody but rather sent to a mental health hospital for further evaluation and treatment.

Sen. Joe Zakas, R-Granger, asked Parker if removing the requirement for psychiatrists would not mitigate the delay in getting evaluations completed.

Parker said he tried to do evaluations quickly, scheduling no later than four weeks after he is given an assignment. Sometimes he has defendants brought to his office in Indianapolis and, when necessary, he drives to another county to do an assessment.

The commission did not vote on the issue. Its next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 8 when it will take up the issue of contents of judgment dockets.

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