Just last week, the Victorian Court of Appeal significantly reduced the sentence given to Akon Guode, a mother who killed three of her children after driving her car into a lake in Melbourne. The main reason for the 8½ year sentence reduction was that the trial judge had not sufficiently taken Guode’s major depression into account.
While the circumstances of this offence were unusual, it is common for offenders to have mental health problems. Surveys have shown that almost half of Australian prison entrants report being affected by a mental disorder. With that in mind, how are mental health issues taken into account during the criminal justice process?
In rare cases, people with mental health problems may be found unfit to stand trial, or not guilty due to their mental impairment. However, in most cases, people with mental health problems will stand trial (or plead guilty) in the ordinary way and if convicted, they will face the normal sentencing process.
Where this happens, the sentencing judge must decide whether to take the offender’s mental health problems into account. There will be a sentencing hearing, in which evidence of the offender’s mental health condition will be presented. The judge must consider this evidence, as well as the relevant sentencing principles, in reaching a verdict.
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