Mental Illness Is Not a Crime: How can the Supreme Court be so ignorant about insanity?

by Jim Randall
Former president, National Alliance on Mental Illness Los Angeles County Coordinating Council.

The Los Angeles Times July 16 , 2006 Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

THE RECENT U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows states broader leeway in limiting an insanity defense saddened many in the mental health community. Although the court’s judgment is undoubtedly sound legally, it once again points to the tragic lack of understanding about mental illness in our nation.

The case was about a 17-year-old Arizona man named Eric Michael Clark, who shot a police officer, believing him to be a space alien. The state court had disallowed an insanity defense because, although Clark had proved that he suffered from mental illness, he hadn’t proved that he didn’t know the killing was wrong. Among other things, the court noted, the fact that Clark ran away after the shooting proved that he realized the depravity of his actions. The Supreme Court backed the Arizona decision.

The problem with that analysis is that it applies sane logic to an insane mind. It assumes that if the man’s judgment was truly not compromised, he would have stayed around the scene of the crime, certain that his actions were morally justified. But some individuals with a severe mental illness exist in a state of jumbled thoughts, voices and delusions. Although it’s unknown exactly what went on in the mind of the young man after he shot the policeman, it’s reasonable to believe the state of terror that drove him to take another man’s life could have easily propelled him to flee.

To make inferences about his state of mind by using the standard of what a person without a brain disorder would be thinking if they ran away from the scene of the crime is unreasonable.

Clearly, if someone with a mental illness demonstrates they are capable of murder, they need to be removed from society for the public good until they are no longer a danger. They need to be in a hospital. But to hold them morally accountable for their actions, as though delusions and hearing voices would not impair their basic judgment, defies fairness and common sense.

The problem of criminalizing people with a mental illness goes far beyond the single tragic case in Arizona. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says there are currently 2.2 million people in prison or in jail. Given that it’s estimated that 15% of this population suffers from a severe mental illness, that means the United States has roughly 330,000 people incarcerated who suffer from brain disorders. Professor Richard Lamb of USC estimates that roughly half of this population should be behind bars (a drug dealer suffering from major depression would be an example).

But that means another 165,000 should be hospitalized or in outpatient care, not incarcerated. Instead, they are thrown in cages — brutalized, isolated and often untreated — not because of faults in their character or because they behaved in a way they knew to be wrong, but because of behavior stemming from biologically based brain disorders.

Future generations will look back on us and our treatment of people with mental illness much as we look back on the Spanish Inquisitors who burned Jews at the stake for not recanting their religion, or on the white racists who lynched African Americans for being insubordinate. Future generations will see us through the lens of history and ask how we dared to be so ignorant.