Dementia and Criminal Responsibility
It is an unfortunate reality that dementia can happen to anyone later in life. Conditions such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are common. It is estimated that 5.8 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a devastating disease that wreaks havoc on families and communities.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is a loss of cognitive functioning that affects a person’s daily life. Dementia affects a person’s ability to think, remember, and reason. Skills such as language, reasoning, self-control, and memory can all become seriously impaired. Dementia is not a normal part of aging. It happens when neurons in the brain stop working, lose the connections with other brain cells, and die.

Dementia and Crime

Dementia can have a profound effect on an individual’s personality and ability to function in society. People who would never commit a crime may find themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. Criminal behavior that starts in mid to late life may be a sign of dementia. People with dementia are often confused and may lash out when they don’t understand what is happening to them. When your 70-year-old aunt, who would never hurt a fly, hits someone at the grocery store, chances are some form of dementia is involved.

A 2015 study published in the Journal Neurology, found that new, late-onset criminal activity could be a sign of dementia. The study also found that the types of crimes committed varied among dementia patients. The study found that 8% of the Alzheimer's patients studied had been involved in the legal system. Often their crimes involved things like trespassing on private property, traffic violations, or shoplifting. Anti-social behaviors such as public urination and fighting occurred with other forms of dementia such as frontotemporal dementia.

Criminal Responsibility

The question for our criminal justice system becomes whether those with dementia who commit crimes should be held criminally responsible for their actions. Confusion, lack of impulse control, and lack of memory may indicate that people with dementia who commit crimes are not aware that their actions are criminal. Individuals who have dementia lack the state of mind to be held responsible for their crimes and should be treated and cared for, not placed in the criminal justice system.
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If you or a loved one has a mental illness or intellectual/developmental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental disabilities. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.
Elizabeth Kelley
Criminal Defense Attorney
Elizabeth Kelley is a criminal defense lawyer with a nationwide practice specializing in representing people with mental disabilities. She is the co-chair of The Arc's National Center for Criminal Justice and Disability, has served three terms on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and serves on the Editorial Board of the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section Magazine.  Learn more .
2019 Agenda
If you’re in NYC on May 29, Elizabeth will be moderating a panel sponsored by NAMI-NYC. Panelists will include Judge Marcia Hirsch of the Queens County Mental Health Court; Tina Luongo, Attorney in Charge, Legail Aid Siciety; Joseph Williams of the Mobile Crisis Unit; and Dr. Erica Weissman, Director of Student Mental Health Services at Touro College.
Books & Videos
FREE E-Book! Families' Guide to Working with a Criminal Defense Lawyer

When your family member with a mental disability has been arrested or charged with a crime, it can be a confusing and challenging experience that leaves you unsure of where to turn for answers. Here are some key things families can do to help the defense attorney handling their case.
Representing People with Mental Disabilities: A Criminal Defense Lawyer's Best Practices Manual

Edited by Elizabeth Kelley, this book is available for purchase from The American Bar Association. It contains chapters devoted to a variety of issues confronted by people with mental disabilities in the criminal justice system such as Competency, Sanity, Malingering, Neuroscience, Jail and Prison Conditions, Working with Experts,and Risk Assessment. Chapters are written by academics, mental health experts, and criminal defense lawyers. In the Introduction, Elizabeth writes that "This is the resource I wish I had had many years ago."