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Perceptions of Defendants With Mental Illness

NCJ Number
R. Alan Thompson, Ph.D.; Deirdre Paulson, M.S.; Bradon Valgardson; Lisa Nored, Ph.D.; William W. Johnson, Ph.D.
Date Published
32 pages

The methodology and findings are presented from a survey of Mississippi's judges, prosecutors, and public defenders regarding their beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes about defendants with mental illness.


Collectively, courtroom participants in Mississippi share a general concern about and empathize with defendants with mental illness. Stereotypes that often result in stigmatization of the mentally ill are apparently not held by participants in the current study. The practitioners responding to the survey have a generalized awareness of the unique issues that can sometimes accompany complex interactions between mentally ill offenders and the criminal justice system. When the practitioner respondent groups are disaggregated and examined, public defenders scored highest on all subscales, which is likely due to their familiarity with issues involved in representing mentally ill defendants. Although prosecutors had less positive summated scale scores compared to public defenders, their attitudes manifested an orientation toward rehabilitation/compassion, benevolence, and community mental health ideology. Although judges manifested a sensitive and empathetic outlook on most dimensions regarding mentally ill offenders, this orientation does not necessarily translate into a belief in reduced culpability for mentally ill defendants, either among judges or prosecutors. The survey instrument used was based on three existing scales with a history of use for assessing public attitudes regarding mental illness. The self-administered survey instrument was distributed by mail during the summer months of 2013. Of the 539 surveys distributed, 169 were returned and used for analysis, an overall response rate of 31 percent. Extensive tables