9.19.2012

Mental Illness, The Insanity Plea, and Civil Commitment Essay



by Elizabeth Hall

Introduction
Greene County Courthouse IMG_3775
Greene County Courthouse IMG_3775 (Photo credit: OZinOH)
In the American Justice System during the arraignment process, one of the things asked of the offenders is, “How do you plea?”  Guilty, not guilty, nolo contendere (no contest), and not guilty by reason of insanity are the choices acceptable to answer the question according to Roberson, C., Wallace, H., & Stuckey, G.B. (2007).  In this writing, we will explore the fourth choice, not guilty by reason of insanity, better known as the insanity defense.  We will look at how frequently offenders attempt to use this defense, why it is difficult to use, and the major criticisms of the use of Insanity as a defense in a court of law.
The legal definition of insanity as understood by Greene, Heibrun, Fortune, and Nietzel (2006), is the legal terminology referring to mental disease or brain defects that are shown to exist in the offender during the commission of the offense, if considered with other factors such as inabilities to either conform to legal behavior or understand why behavior is illegal.  The major rulings that deal with this issue are the Brawner Rule, noting that an offender cannot be responsible for their act if they do not have the mental capacity to understand why the act is criminal or to change their behavior to conform to the rule of law.  The other ruling is called the M’Naghten Rule, which states that an offender may be deemed not guilty by reason of insanity if they do not know what they did was wrong, or if they just did not know what they were doing at all.  Both of these rulings require that the conditions must be the result of mental defect of some sort.  (Greene et al, 2006)
GIANYAR, BALI, INDONESIA - MAY 1:  Wayan Pait,...
GIANYAR, BALI, INDONESIA - MAY 1: Wayan Pait, 50, who is severely physically and mentally handicapped, lays in his bed where has has been tied up and confined most of his life May 1, 2012 in Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia. According to his family, Wayan lacks muscular control so he is kept with his arms and legs tied, saying otherwise he will hurt himself. There is no official diagnosis for his medical condition from the local hospital, although Polio has been suggested. Wayan, who has never been educated, has been taken many times to a 'Balian,' a traditional Balinese healer, but the family says nothing has helped. According to his mother, one month after he was born he went into a coma and the family thought he was clinically dead but eight days. For the physically handicapped, especially those born with deformities, there is a belief held by some that they embody bad spirits from those who have lived before. Inside the spiritual Balinese society there is often a stigma and misinformation about mental illness. Some people feel that it is the work of the supernatural and their hope of solving the mental disorder is to let the traditional healer do his work. The Indonesian health ministry spends 2.3 percent of the total national budget on health care for a population of approximately 240 million people and has a shortage of psychiatrists and one government run mental hospital in Bali. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Contrary to popular belief, the Insanity Defense is not used very often, because it is difficult to prove.  The legal definition of insanity deals only with whether or not the perpetrator understood the act was wrong, and if they have the mental capacity to recognize right from wrong.  Therefore a defendant such as a compulsive rapist or murderer that tortures their victims because the dog told them to do it, or some other sort of compulsion, that understands that the crime they committed was against the law, and why can be medically insane without qualifying to be legally insane.  It is all in whether they have the mental capacity to distinguish right from wrong in the eyes of the legal system and laws of our country.
  Problems with this defense also arise because of the frequency that the legal definition of insanity differs by state, and changes are made often by the justice system as well.  Another issue is that there is minimal accurate testing equipment and procedures to test for insanity especially when it concerns someone supposedly insane at the time of the crime, but otherwise sane.  There are however, a few under-tested screening tools such as the Mental Status Examination at the Time of the Offense screening, and the Rogers Criminal Responsibility Scales test.  (Greene et al, 2006)
Criticisms of Insanity Defense
There are many criticisms of the insanity defense, and the American people have conveyed their displeasure at this type of defense.  The four main complaints are that the public believes that many offenders attempt to use this plea, and that susceptible juries are acquitting these defendants often.  The other two complaints are that the offenders are just released back into society way to soon, and that all insane people are excessively dangerous.  The reality of the situation is far different from what public opinion warrants.  (Greene et al, 2006)
Insanity is only actually attempted in approximately 1 out of every 200 cases according to Greene et al, (2006).  Only one-fourth of those are successful in producing a verdict of insanity.  Contrary to public opinion, when an offender is found not guilty by reason of insanity, they are not set free, but remanded to a controlled facility for mental health patients for an average of three years.  The last complaint about the insanity defense deals with the psychological aspect of the plea.  Critics complain that should not be a legal defense, and base their arguments on the fact that there is little proven research on testing for insanity.  This means that the case relies heavily on the opinions of expert witnesses instead of hard data scientific methods. (Greene et al, 2006)
Difficulty in Treating Mentally Ill Offenders
As noted by Bartollas (2002), one of the most crucial issues in dealing with the confinement of inmates is mental health placements for those needing psychological treatment.  At one time in our country’s history, the mentally ill population was confined to mental institutions and hospitals instead of correctional facilities. These days the mentally ill are usually shuffling between homelessness and life on the street, local mental health clinics, and mostly correctional facilities.  Because of decreasing budgets, and increasing crime, overcrowding can pose a serious block to accessibility of the facility’s limited psychological department for those inmates deemed mentally ill. (Bartollas, 2002)
ABANG, BALI, INDONESIA-MAY 4 : Ketut, 57, who ...
ABANG, BALI, INDONESIA-MAY 4 : Ketut, 57, who is diagnosed with Schizophrenia and has been chained for 15 years, sits May 4, 2012 in Abang, Bali, Indonesia. Ketut is shackled by his own family in order to control him, they feel he is aggressive and sometimes dangerous. Ketut, whose mental condition began in 1991, has been to the hospitalized four times over the years. Currently, he is monitored by the Suryani Institute for Mental Health, a non-profit institute that cares for the mentally ill, providing free medical and psychiatric treatment. The mental health institute works to get all of their patients released but in some cases the family creates more problems. Many poor families don't have money to pay for hospitalization or go to doctors and inside the spiritual Balinese society there is often a stigma and misinformation about mental illness. Inside the spiritual Balinese society there is often a stigma and misinformation about mental illness. Some people feel that it is the work of the supernatural and their hope of solving the mental disorder is to let the traditional healer do his work. The Indonesian health ministry spends 2.3 percent of the total national budget on health care for a population of approximately 240 million people and has a shortage of psychiatrists and one government run mental hospital in Bali. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
One problem with this system of jailing the mentally ill is that correctional officers do not have the proper training to deal with the requirements of mentally ill offenders.  They also lack the knowledge of when intervention on their parts is necessary.  Another problem is that a mentally ill offender does not react well to the confines of correctional rules, or environments, and may just sit slumped and staring making them easy victims of other inmates.  They also have more tendencies to commit suicide in this environment.  (Bartollas, 2002)

Conclusion
In looking at how frequently offenders attempt to use the insanity defense, why it is difficult to use, and the major criticisms of the use of insanity as a defense in a court of law, we have discovered that public perception of this issue is not based on facts, but rather on feelings.  The insanity defense is attempted far less than one would think.  This is in part because the medical and legal definitions of insanity differ, and because the definition varies from location to location.  The other part is that this defense relies heavily on opinion of psychological experts, instead of scientific measurable fact.  As a nation, we need to reevaluate the treatment of mentally ill offenders because locking them down with violent criminal offenders only makes the illness worse as the inmate reacts negatively to their environment.  (Greene et al, 2006)


References:
Bartollas, C. (2002).  Invitation to Corrections.  Boston.  Allyn and Bacon
Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T. (2006).  Psychology and the Legal System (6th Ed.).  Florence, Kentucky.  Cengage Learning
Roberson, C., Wallace, H., & Stuckey, G.B. (2007).Procedures in the Justice System.  Eighth ed.  Pearson Prentice Hall.  Upper Saddle River.  NJ.


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