Hundreds of Colorado criminal convictions involving defendants found to be mentally competent to stand trial may be in jeopardy of being overturned because their competency examinations were performed by psychologists rather than psychiatrists.

For years, the Colorado State Hospital has provided psychologists to courts to determine whether criminal defendants are mentally competent, apparently overlooking a provision in state law requiring that those evaluations be made by psychiatrists. Forty-one percent of the 800 such evaluations performed by the state hospital in fiscal year 2004-2005 were done by people lacking the medical degree that a psychiatrist holds, according to figures from the Colorado Psychological Association. Prosecutors say that could open up potentially hundreds of criminal cases to appeals.

The information came to light when a prosecutor challenged the report of a psychologist who had found the defendant incompetent.

“I may have opened up a real can of worms here,” said Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger, who successfully challenged a competency evaluation Monday that had been performed by a psychologist instead of a psychiatrist. “But all of us in government have to follow the law.”

The article describes the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist this way:

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have completed advanced training in medical diseases and can prescribe medications. Psychologists must hold doctoral degrees to be licensed in Colorado but cannot prescribe medicine.

There may not be enough psychiatrists in Colorado to handle the number of competency exams needed by the Court. What’s next? Probably a change in the law.