DEFINING OUR TERMS
Not guilty by reason of insanity: Colorado Revised Statute 16-8-101.5: The applicable test of insanity shall be (a) a person who is so diseased or defective in mind at the time of the commission of the act as to being capable of distinguishing right from wrong, the respect to that act is not accountable. Except that care should be taken not to confuse such mental disease or deficit with moral obliquity, mental depravity or passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred or other motives and kindred evil conditions for when the act is induced by any of these causes, the person is accountable to the law.
Incompetency to proceed: As a result of a mental disability or developmental disability, the defendant does not have sufficient present ability to consult with the defendant’s lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding in order to assist in the defense, or that, as a result of a mental disability or developmental disability the defendant does not have a rational and factual understanding of the criminal proceedings.
Fourteenth Judicial District Judge Mary Hoak, who has served on the bench in Grand County for the last 16 years, first as county judge for four years and then in her current position for the last 12, has seen numerous cases involving a subject’s mental health play out in her courtroom.
“Unless you are ‘insane,’ as that term is defined in the Colorado Revised Statutes, you have to answer for what you have done,” Hoak explained, using the word “insane” in the legal sense, defined as having mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct their affairs due to psychosis or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.
But, as Hoak continued, mental health’s place in the law is overly complex.
“… You can’t criminalize mental health, but you also have to hold people responsible for their behavior,” she said. “There’s only so much that you can do as a judge.”
Hoak plays a major part when it comes to sentencing defendants, many times holding their fate in her hands.
“If I can craft a sentencing order to help and support that person, I will,” she explained. But sometimes that depends on the severity of the offense.
Before a person is sentenced, the county’s probation department performs a pre-sentence report to recommend sentencing for a defendant. That process includes a thorough search through a person’s background and suggestions for additional psychological testing if needed.
It is Hoak’s job to offer the final sentence.
Per state guidelines, if she’s able to put somebody on probation, she will “absolutely” recommend treatment if it is indicated. She can recommend mental health treatment if someone goes to community corrections, but when a criminal defendant is sentenced to the Colorado Department of Corrections, it is up to the prison system to address any mental health needs of the defendant.
“I think there are a number of people in the Department of Corrections who suffer from serious mental illnesses,” she professed. “Part of that is, what we as a society require from our mental health system — what we make it do and what we don’t make it do.”
If a person is convicted of first-degree murder, Hoak explained, then that’s a life sentence in prison. “There’s nothing we can do at that point in the court system to assist a criminal defendant with a mental illness,” she said.
For other crimes that involve subjects with a mental illness, and that don’t pursue an insanity plea, Hoak, the prosecutor and probation department will take the defendant’s mental health struggles into account.
“That doesn’t mean there isn’t punishment,” she confirmed. “It isn’t a free pass, so to speak.”
Hoak, who possesses a sympathetic yet professional and firm nature, strongly believes in the judicial system. Though she admitted it isn’t always perfect.
“Are their errors? Yes. Do they get as soon as we know about them? Yes. Do they get fixed when we know about them? Yes,” she said. “But we’re not perfect, and we never will be.”