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The Controversial Issue of Insanity Defense

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For many years now, society has accepted the need to distinguish between people charged with an offense who are responsible for their acts and those who are not. This is what we now call the insanity defense which was put in place to make that distinction for people with mental disabilities. Even though it is greatly debated, the federal government and most states accept an insanity defense. The insanity defense is a controversial and highly debated subject because it has allowed those who have committed the most evil and atrocious crimes, and in any jurisdictions, being deemed legally insane has been used as a defense that lets them off free. However, what most people do not realize is that the insanity defense is rarely used in court and the results are rarely successful. This is largely in part of the difficulty in demonstrating legal insanity. Since the duty of criminal law is to punish the offender, it is much different than the purpose of a medical diagnosis of trying to cure their disorder.

The insanity defense is used in criminal cases in the event that the person who is being charged with a crime is too crippled with mental illness, and therefore are not responsible for their actions. When a person is decided by the court to not be criminally responsible, acquittal through a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity” (NGRI) is the proper categorization. Those who are found not guilty due to reason of insanity are usually checked in, or committed, to mental health treatment facilities until they are healthy enough to be released and are no longer a threat to themselves or others. In instances like these, it becomes a successful insanity plea, because instead of being sentenced to prison, they are sentenced to treatment. However, the insanity defense frequently results in a long term institutional stay that can be lengthier than prison sentences resulting from guilty verdicts.

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Concerns about public safety and the necessity for treatment usually continue after such an acquittal, but these concerns should be addressed through civil commitment, or involuntary treatment in mental hospitals until the threat has passed, rather than through incarceration in prison (Barlow & Durand, p. 576).

The insanity defense dates back to 1843 when a man by the name of Daniel McNaughtan made an attempt to assassinate Edward Drummond, Secretary to the British Prime Minister Robert Peel. McNaughtan was under the impression that he was being prosecuted, so he reacted with assassination. Daniel Mcnaughtan killed Robert Peel’s secretary. He was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity. Following his trial, he spent the next several years in a mental asylum until he died. Shortly after this case, The English House of Lords set criterions for the insanity defense which they called McNaughtan’s Rule: “[I]t must be clearly proved that at the time of committing the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong” (Barlow & Durand, p.578).

In the 1960’s, the United States went through a substantial shift in public opinion. This resulted in a new insanity test to be devolved by the American Law Institute (ALI). What the ALI concluded was that “…people are not responsible for their criminal behavior if, because of their mental illness, they cannot recognize the inappropriateness of their behavior or control it” (Barlow & Durand, p. 577). To be categorized as criminally insane under this test, the accused must not recognize their actions are wrong or the individual must be under such a defect that they cannot comprehend what the law requires of their actions in everyday society.

It is, however, a popular consensus that people think the insanity plea is a, “…loophole that allows too many people to go free,” and that people use it to, “…escape the responsibilities for crimes by pleading insanity” (Barlow & Durand, p. 579). What most of society does not understand though, is that less than 1% of people actually use this defense, and of those who are acquitted, the length of their hospitalization confinement is often times longer than the time they would have spent in jail, had they been convicted of the crime (Barlow & Durand, p. 579).

Since Mr. Quincy is diagnosed with schizophrenia it is possible that he would be able to use this defense in court. Someone who is diagnosed with schizophrenia are impaired in several areas of functioning such as cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and motivational, with cognitive impairment being the most affected. The schizophrenic’s sense of reality is affected in several ways such that their understandings about the world and personal experience are often inaccurate. Distorted beliefs about self and others are common. Judgment and perception are also often affected. For example, the lecture notes state that the schizophrenic often has poor insight about the scope, nature, and consequences of the condition.

Insanity is a legitimate method to diminish responsibility in a criminal case without entirely ignoring any penalties for such actions. There should not be fear of misuse of this plea because it is difficult to effectively prove in the court of law and many defendants end up spending a longer period of time in a state mental institution than in jail for their offenses. The criminally insane do not have a greater privilege than those who are sane, and do not have any more freedom than those who decide not to plea based on their mental illness. This is a big deterrent for those who think pretending to have a mental illness would get their case dismissed altogether. The issue of insanity was brought forward in the 1800’s and is still being debated continuously today. United States cultural needs to keep pushing to expand acceptance of those who are mentally ill and needs to provide a more comprehensive and consistent mental health care.

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