Conference Committee Working on Bill Allowing Mental Health Testimony in Criminal Cases

Feb 24, 2021

People with developmental disabilities are incarcerated much more often than the rest of the population. But when defending themselves, they’re not allowed to introduce evidence about their mental state at the time of the alleged crime.

A third of people in jails could have a developmental disability, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The Virginia Department of Corrections says the same number has mental health conditions.

But in Virginia, people accused of crimes can’t introduce evidence about how these conditions could have affected their state of mind at the time of the alleged offense.

On Wednesday, the House passed a bill that would allow defendants to tell courts about an intellectual or developmental disability, or an autism spectrum disorder. 

Jennifer McClellan of Richmond sponsored the senate bill.

“We cannot have a just system if we are just criminalizing mental illness,” said McClellan.

The bill would also require judges to consider these conditions at bail and sentencing. It would require court-appointed lawyers to get more training on representing people that the bill applies to.

This isn’t the end of the process. The bill now goes to a conference committee. Legislators there will decide if the bill will apply to mental health conditions, too.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.