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Criminal Justice

Competency proceedings in Pa. typically involve minor crimes

by Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA and Brittany Hailer of The Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism |

The Allegheny County Jail, where people deemed incompetent to stand trial wait for a spot in a state hospital.
Nate Smallwood / For Spotlight PA and PINJ

This story is a collaboration between Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, published as part of a Pittsburgh Media Partnership project. Sign up for Spotlight PA’s free newsletters here.

HARRISBURG — A new investigation by Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reveals the very system intended to protect those with mental illness in the criminal justice system often makes matters worse, trapping them in jail.

The true number of people spending extended time incarcerated in Pennsylvania because of mental health issues is not known. The public records that document these cases are scattered in courthouses across the state, with no standardized way to track or identify people stuck in the system.

The Administrative Offices of Pennsylvania Courts provided Spotlight PA and PINJ data on nearly 700 cases involving competency proceedings over the past five years. Among those cases, defendants were charged with more than 2,600 different crimes upon arrest, many of which were later dropped or changed as their cases progressed.

An analysis of these initial charges found the most common were low-level misdemeanors that can result from someone experiencing symptoms of their mental illness in public.

Simple assault: 260 counts

Someone charged with simple assault is typically accused of hurting or attempting to hurt someone else. But someone can also be charged with simple assault if they “recklessly” cause bodily injury, even if they didn’t intend to cause harm. Someone can also be charged with simple assault for, “by physical menace,” causing someone to fear “imminent serious bodily injury.”

Recklessly endangering another person: 123 counts

Someone can be charged with reckless endangerment if they engage in conduct that can or does place another person in danger of death or serious bodily injury.

Harassment - subject other to physical contact: 122

There are several different types of behavior that can lead to a “harassment” charge under Pennsylvania law. Among the cases we analyzed, we found people were most often accused of coming into physical contact with another person — or threatening or attempting to do so — with the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm them.

Terroristic threats with intent to terrorize another: 113

Terroristic threats are not the same as terrorism. A person charged with committing “terroristic threats” in Pennsylvania is accused of either directly or “indirectly” communicating a threat. The threat can be to “commit a crime of violence with intent to terrorize,” to cause the evacuation of a public place, or to cause a serious public inconvenience. A person can also be charged with terroristic threats if they have caused such an inconvenience, not on purpose, but with “reckless disregard of the risk” of causing it.

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