Is There A Need For The Insanity Defense?
Though the insanity defense is rarely invoked in criminal trials, it remains a controversial issue. Legislators and the public generally question the need for the defense after a defendant in a highly publicized murder case is found not guilty by reason of insanity. For example, when John Hinckley successfully used the defense after shooting President RONALD REAGAN to impress the actress Jodie Foster, there was a public outcry. Legal and medical commentators have divided opinions about the need for the insanity defense.
Those who wish to retain it note that forty-eight of the fifty states have some type of insanity defense. This, they claim, is evidence of the need for such a defense. The public is given a distorted view of who uses the defense and how it is employed. In fact about one percent of criminal defendants invoke the defense. More important, criminals rarely "beat the rap" by PLEADING insanity. When an insanity defense is employed, it means the defendant admits committing the criminal behavior and is now seeking a not guilty verdict on the basis of his state of mind. If the jury does not agree, the defendant will be convicted, and generally will serve a longer sentence than will someone convicted of the same crime who has not pleaded insanity.
Juries find for only about 20 percent of the defendants who plead insanity. Even this figure does not reflect the reality that many insanity pleas are the result of plea bargains, which indicates that prosecutors agree that such pleas are sometimes appropriate.
Finally, the fact that most highly publicized cases involve murder disguises the true demographics: 60 to 70 percent of insanity pleas are for crimes other than murder. They range from assault to shoplifting.
All these myths have led to the belief that criminals can avoid punishment by claiming insanity. The truth is that the insanity defense is a risky one at best.
Apart from combating these myths, advocates of the insanity defense contend that a fundamental principle of CRIMINAL LAW is at stake. The insanity defense is rooted in the belief that conviction and punishment are justified only if the defendant deserves them. The basic pre-condition for punishment is that the person who committed the criminal behavior must have responsibility as a moral agent. When a person is so mentally disturbed that her irrationality or compulsion is impossible to control, that person lacks responsibility as a moral agent. It would be unfair to punish a person in such an extreme condition.
Based on this argument, proponents of the insanity defense do not support its application to a person who willingly consumes a powerful hallucinogen and then commits a criminal act. Nor would they allow its application to a person who is able to control a mental disorder through medication but fails to do so. But they do support the defense for a person who unwittingly consumes hallucinogens and then commits a crime.
Some opponents attack the insanity defense for confusing psychiatric and legal concepts, in the process undermining the moral integrity of the law. Both sides agree that the word insane is a legal, not medical, term. It is too simplistic to describe a severely mentally ill person merely as insane, and the vast majority of people with a mental illness would be judged sane if current legal tests for insanity were applied. The legal tests for insanity, moreover, require that a defendant's mental condition become so impaired that the fact finder may conclude the person has lost his or her free will. Because free will is not a concept that can be explained in medical terms, it may be impossible for a psychiatrist to determine if the mental impairment affected the defendant's capacity for voluntary choice. Without a way to measure insanity, it makes no sense to let prosecution and defense psychiatrists spar over the issue. A jury's decision based on psychiatrists' opinions may be grounded on unreliable evidence.
Another major argument against the insanity defense challenges its supposed moral basis. Critics contend that modern criminal law is concerned more with the consequences of crime and less with moral imperatives. If a person commits a criminal act, that person should be convicted. Mental illness can be taken into consideration at the time of sentencing. This line of reasoning supports laws that several states have adopted, which abolish the insanity defense and replace it with a new verdict of guilty but insane. This verdict carries a criminal penalty. It allows the judge to determine the length of imprisonment, which occurs in a hospital prison, and shifts the burden to the defendant to prove he is no longer dangerous or mentally ill in order to be released.
Finally, critics argue that the insanity plea is a rich person's defense. Only wealthy defendants can retain high-priced psychiatric experts. Persons represented by public defenders are usually afforded a psychiatric examination for the defense, but they may not get the same quality of exam, nor are they typically able to hire more than one examiner. Because a two-tiered criminal justice system is morally repugnant, critics contend that the insanity defense must be abolished.
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