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History of the Insanity Defense: Reformation Or Abolishment

Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.

Morally speaking, it is a popular belief that it would be cruel to punish those who are found incompetent and are unable to comprehend the actions they have taken. Famous cases such as the Eddie Routh case ruling, Jeffrey Dahmer and the case of James Holmes cause many to have a negative view on the insanity defense. People believe that criminals use this too often as an excuse to escape the punishment that is deserved or they fake mental illness. What they fail to acknowledge is that the insanity plea is used in less than one percent of criminal cases and has a successful ruling in about only 25 percent of those one percent of cases. 

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This one percent of cases represent those that are deemed insane and can be accounted for by the Eighth Amendment, forbidding cruel and unusual punishment (U.S. Const. Amend. VIII). Kahler v. Kansas argues that at the time of adoption of the Eighth Amendment, the law prohibited the punishment of the mentally ill and utilized a right-and-wrong form of test to determine insanity, which means that Kansas’ disregard of such a test suggests that they will punish mentally ill defendants. By doing this, they contend that Kansas would be actively violating the Eighth Amendment. Kahler v. Kansas contends that “Although this Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence focuses on punishment, the Court has also applied it to prohibit criminal convictions in certain cases” (Kahler v. Kansas, 2019). 

The state of Kansas argues that by abolishing the defense, the defendant will be able to recognize the magnitude of their crime, however, they fail to acknowledge the fact that insane defendants cannot understand the significance of their actions. It’s like punishing a small child. Because of this, they lack the “personal culpability” that Kansas is searching for. This case also asserts that punishing the insane can also be considered unusual at the time of the adoption of the eighth amendment since originally both England and the thirteen colonies acknowledged an early form of the insanity defense. This defensive excuse should not be abolished because it would harm the mentally ill more than it would help them. 

They would not learn from being punished, what they need is treatment. The abolishment of the insanity defense is argued to also violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment holds that a State is not allowed to make or enforce laws that would limit the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. It also states that states can not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process and provides them equal protection under the law (U.S. Const Amend. XIV). According to The New York Times’ Lincoln Caplan,

“The Supreme Court has long said generally that due process prohibits a court from holding anyone criminally responsible when doing so would offend a “principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” (Caplan, 2012). Many can consider this defense option a “fundamental right” because it has been practiced throughout history and is used by a majority of states, excluding Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah which do not accept it. The state of Kansas claims that “the mentally ill are entitled to no more scrutiny of their moral culpability than anyone else” (Kahler v. Kansas, 2019). 

These cases need to be critically observed though, in order to give the defendant due process, which is not the same as it would be for someone that is found competent because they have different levels of comprehension of the law. It would not be fair to punish these two different types of cases the same. It is not fair for someone who can not stand trial to be forced to go through the normal process in which they understand nothing and are in a horrible mental or physical state. It can lead to the prosecution taking advantage of their current state. Disability Rights California argues that the U.S. 

Constitution prohibits the trial and conviction of a person while legally incompetent because he is incapable of adequately defending himself against criminal charges and analyzes different case examples. States are not required to mandate the insanity defense, as they have their Tenth Amendment rights, but in good morals, they should not abolish it completely. It can be argued that these States are violating the Constitution by eliminating the defense because they are not giving those that are not mentally capable of standing trial due process under the law. Reforming the current standards of plea would be more beneficial and would help to make (part of) the law the same in all states, making it easier to understand for all.   

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