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The Rising Mental Health Crisis in the United States and Insanity as a Defense in Criminal Justice

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Every day a crime is committed in the United States by citizens who may or may not deserve jail time for their actions. Every day in the United States, the mental health crisis is growing. There are times when these two issues overlap and there is controversy on how to deal with this problem. For criminal defense of the mentally ill, there are laws regarding insanity, court action, and punishment of mentally ill offenders written into state law and court codes for conduct. Beginning in the 1800s, the insanity defense was introduced to protect the criminally insane throughout their journey through the legal system and guiding the defendant to receive care for their mental illness. Today, this defense is only used in 1% of felony court cases, and it is only successful in a handful of these cases (A Case of Insanity). 4 states have banned the use of the insanity defense altogether- Kansas, Utah, Idaho, and Montana. As the mental health crisis continues in the United States, the controversy of the insanity defense grows and is drawn into the light more and more. The insanity defense is a necessary option for the defense of the accused in order to provide an option for mental health treatment as opposed to only prison time for those who are found guilty of committing a crime.

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In the history of the insanity defense in the United States, varying definitions have been brought to light to aid the courts in making the determination between the mentally ill and the criminally insane. There are three main tests and one supplement assessment for sanity that have been implemented in the United States. The first insanity test was established in Britain in 1843 in the case of Daniel M’Naughten. M’Naughten attempted to assassinate a head Parliament figure. His lawyers argued that M’Naughten did not know the difference between what was right and what was wrong. In the ruling of the case, a definition for insanity was outlined for use for hundreds of years in many developed countries, stating “At the time of committing the act, the accused was under a defect of reason, from a 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 what he was doing was wrong” (Queen v. M’Naughten). This case set the precedent of defining insanity as whether an individual knows the difference between right and wrong in their actions. This ruling outlined the first widely used test called the “M’Naughten Rule”, also called the right/wrong test. A supplement to the M’Naughten rule is the irresistible impulse test. This test states that someone under an irresistible impulse is “One who was unable to prevent themselves from committing the act despite knowledge of the wrongfulness” (Evolution of the Insanity Plea). This supplement was added when the M’Naughten rule was enforced as many people thought this rule did not go far enough in protecting the mentally ill in the court system. With the M’Naughten rule and the irresistible impulse test together, this ruled in England and throughout the United States for hundreds of years.

In the 1960s, the United States went through a large shift in public opinion. This drove a new insanity test to be developed by the American Law Institute. The new American Law Institute Test outlined the use of insanity in the court system as “An individual accused of a crime is not criminally responsible if at the time of such conduct is a result of a mental disease or defect the person’s substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct or to conform such conduct to the requirements of the law.” (Evolution of the Insanity Plea). To be defined as criminally insane under this test, the accused must not know their actions are wrong or the individual must be under such a defect that they cannot understand what the law requires of their actions in every day society. By the 1970s, this test was adopted in every federal court circuit except for the D.C. circuit. (Evolution of the Insanity Plea). During this time, the D.C. federal circuit adopted the Durham test. This test had a vague definition of insanity as “The accused is not criminally responsible if the unlawful act was a product of a mental disease or defect” (Evolution of the Insanity Plea). This also asked two questions of the jury while in the decision making process if the issue of sanity was brought up during the course of the case. First, did the defendant have a mental disease or defect? Second, was the disease or defect the reason for the unlawful act? (Evolution of the Insanity Plea). Both of the answers has to be yes in order to fully prove mental illness. These questions for the jury to examine the issue of whether insanity was completely proved the defendant during the case. This causes a shift in the burden of proof that is required of the prosecution during a criminal trial. In 1972, this test was abandoned due to the vague nature of the wording. Pictured below is a map of the current United States tests for insanity in the criminal justice system based on state. United States history plays a large role in the continuation of various law practices that are generally not efficient or reflective of the current society’s thinking. (Source: Crime and Offense Statistics).

In the United States, federal law trumps state law, but states still have the right to create their own laws for certain aspects of life. States are in charge of outlining and enforcing their own laws. One of the states that has chosen to ban the use of the insanity defense is Kansas. This is seen in K.S.A 22-3220, which states “Mental disease or defect is not a defense” (Kansas Code of Criminal Procedure). This law was enacted in 1995 and is still present today. The Kansas Code of Criminal Procedure requires that the prosecution show mens rea (criminal intent), while the defense must prove that mental disease was the cause of the law violation in order for insanity to be examined in the state of Kansas. (Neville 32-34). In 1996, a provision of K.S.A. 22-3220, K.S.A. 22-3321 was enacted. This provision adds a jury question to the jury directions if the defense council has attempted to prove that mental illness was the cause of the criminal action and the jury returns a not guilty verdict, asking “Do you find the defendant not guilty solely because the defendant, at the time of the alleged crime, was suffering from a mental disease or defect that rendered the defendant incapable of possessing the required criminal intent?” (Kansas Code of Criminal Procedure). If the answer to this question is yes, the defendant will be committed to a state mental institution for 90 days with another hearing following to determine whether the defendant is ready to reintegrate into normal society or whether treatment needs to be continued. Following K.S.A. 22-3221, there are many other laws regarding the court conduct dealing with the criminally insane. In April 2003, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of K.S.A. 22-3320 and K.S.A. 22-3321 in the case State of Kansas v Michael A. Bethel. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that this does not violate the due process of the law for those who are mentally ill. (State of Kansas v Kahler). In the official decision, the court used other cases from other states to defend its stance. In the state of Kansas, there are many laws outlining criminal procedure and the laws regarding insanity have been upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court, paving the way for many future defense attorneys to fight the uphill battle of proving mental disease in upcoming criminal cases.

There has been many cases in Kansas history where the insanity defense was attempted, and only a fraction of those cases reigned success. A hallmark case in Kansas insanity is State of Kansas v Kraig Kahler. This case was cited in the Kansas Supreme Court decision in State of Kansas v. Michael A. Bethel. Kahler murdered his two teenage daughter, his ex-wife, and his mother-in-law on Thanksgiving. He was charged with capital murder, four counts of first degree murder, and aggravated burglary. (Allegrucci). His defense team claimed stress led him to be overwhelmed and unable to control his behavior, causing him to lash out towards his family in a murderous, uncontrollable rage. The prosecution, however, claimed him to be “calculating” in the murder of his family. There was enough evidence to prove he had made plans and was able to control his actions at the time of the murder. He was found guilty on all counts. On August 29th, 2011 Kahler was sentenced to death. (State of Kansas v. Kahler). Kansas does not have a separate “death row”, instead inmates sentenced to death are housed in El Dorado Correctional Facility. This means that Kahler is not receiving any mental health treatment while in prison. As of January 2016, he is still on death row for his crimes. Kansas has not completed an execution since 1965. (Cadue). This means that Kahler will sit on death row in El Dorado without receiving any mental health treatment until he dies in prison. Kahler’s case encompasses the Kansas law of a partly abolished insanity plea, following laws K.S.A 33-220 and K.S.A. 22-3321. The mens rea ultimately won out over claimed uncontrollable behavior, following the due process of law for Kraig Kahler.

Almost 1500 miles away from the Kansas partial abolishment of the insanity defense is California. California, as opposed to Kansas, uses the M’Naughten Rule to test insanity in criminal cases. In People v Severance, this rule was put to use for Severance, who represented himself with court-ordered standby counsel present during his case. He was charged with four counts of second degree robbery with four related weapon enhancements (People v. Severance). When testifying in his own defense, he claimed that Satan takes control of him when he is hit on the head and that he is ‘Savior’, who is here to defend mankind against satanic forces. He also claims that he was abducted by aliens and now he receives Morse code in his ear. (People v. Severance). A court psychologist interviewed Severance, and said that although he may have antisocial personality disorder, he knew what he was doing when he committed the crimes. As California follows the M’Naughten rule, the issue of insanity was dropped as Severance knew his actions were violating the law and were wrong. He was then found guilty and sentenced to four consecutive terms of 25 years to life and an aggregate consecutive determinate term of 19 years, as defined by California Rule 4.452 sentencing guidelines. (California Rules of Court). As the issue of insanity was dropped, Severance is not receiving mental health treatment while serving his sentence in prison. This case is an example of the M’Naughten rule being put to use in California and resulting in a lack of mental health treatment.

In Michigan, the American Law Institute Test is in use for criminal insanity. An example case is People of Michigan v Jennifer Anne Kukla. Kukla murdered her two young children by cutting their throats. She had been acting strange before the murders and was acting strange afterwards. Her family and jail supervisors reported strange behaviors. While being questioned, Kukla claimed she was protecting them. This showed that she did not understand the significance of the murder of her two children. Three state psychologists deemed her legally insane at the time of the murders following Michigan’s Mental Health Code- Act No. 258 of the Public Acts of 1974 that outlines the requirements for insanity and the qualifications for the professional making this determination. (People of Mi v. Jennifer Anne Kukla). (The Code of Criminal Procedure). She was found “guilty but mentally ill” (GBMI). (Neville 21-23). Under the American Law Institute Test, Kukla was exalted of the criminal penalties for murder and put into a state mental institution. Guilty but mentally ill defendants are sent to a state mental hospital to receive treatment until they are able to serve out the rest of their term in prison. If they are unable to be merged into the prison population before their potential sentence is up, they will continue to receive treatment until they are deemed safe for the general civilian population. Kukla currently still resides in a Michigan state mental institution. This case perfectly outlined the American Law Institute Test by showing that Kukla did not understand the wrongfulness of her actions.

In the United States, three main tests have been adopted for insanity in criminal court cases. Three main case examples encompass the different state conduct laws regarding mental illness in the justice system. In State of Kansas v. Kraig Kahler, Kahler resides in El Dorado Correctional Facility and is not receiving mental health care. This case shows the mens rea requirement for the state of Kansas compared to California, where the M’Naughten rule is in place. Under the M’Naughten rule Severance passed a psychological interview and therefore does not receive mental health care while serving his prison time. This is a complete let down of the care that is required to aid the growing mental health crisis as Severance clearly showed a mental disturbance during his trial yet he is not receiving any care. In Michigan, Kukla is receiving care for her mental illness that resulted in her criminal behavior. This is an important piece to claiming insanity. Treatment is important for those who are criminally insane to reduce the danger to the general public. The American Law Institute Test provides an opportunity for Kukla to be given care for her mental illness, helping to alleviate the crisis that is growing in the United States. Overall, there are three options for insanity tests in the United States. These tests are state specific and therefore are not consistently applied when dealing with the criminally insane, leaving gaps in treatment for the mentally ill.

Every issue has two sides. Those two sides, however, are not always inherently equal in the eyes of the law, which is to be equal for all people. There are pros and cons to the insanity defense. The biggest pro is the avoidance of the death penalty for those deemed criminally insane. This is important as to not execute those who commit a crime due to their mental illness. Another important pro to the insanity defense is the defendant now has the opportunity to receive mental health treatment that they desperately need. People are not automatically cleared of their criminal behavior and let go back onto the streets when convicted under an insanity plea, but rather, they receive care. This clears the misconception that people use insanity as a “cop out” from their punishment for criminal activity. The defense is rarely attempted and only 25% of cases it is used in are successful. (Price). The low success rate is a pro and a con, as that means there are mentally ill defendants that are slipping through the cracks. It is also very difficult to prove. This can go both ways, as that keeps people who are not mentally ill from trying to claim insanity, but it also prevents people are ill from stepping forward about their illness for fear of failure. One big con to an insanity plea is there is no set time to receive mental health care. The indefinite nature of the insanity plea turns defendants away from dealing with their mental illness, while possibly prolonging the timeframe of being in the criminal justice system. Most defendants spend longer than what their sentence would have been in jail in a mental institution. Once put into a state mental institution under this plea, most defendants never regain their freedom. Another con is most insanity plea cases are left up to the jurors morals and understanding of mental health issues, as seen with the Durham test in the D.C. circuit during its use. Jurors may not be equipped with all the psychological knowledge required to make the determination on whether a defendant has a mental disturbance or not. While there are many pros and cons of the use of the insanity plea, the pros outweigh the cons in the eyes of most state laws and in the eyes of the mental health professionals.

The current justice system practices for dealing with the criminally insane are currently lacking in consistent care of mentally disturbed individuals. There are three different tests to determine insanity, two that are more widely used in the United States. This creates a let- down because two identical cases in two different states could be handled in many different ways. There are also varying laws regarding what to do once the defendant is deemed criminally insane, although every state commits the defendant to a state mental institution time length of stays varies from state to state and from case to case, if the state allows the insanity defense at fall. Jeffrey A. Schaler wrote in his article “Mental Health and the Law”,

“Involuntary commitment rests primarily on asserting that a person’s mental illness causes them to be a danger to themselves and others. Variations on the insanity defense, for example, from the M’Naughten rule or the irresistible impulse doctrine, or Durham’s ‘product’, all establish that a person cannot form the necessary intent, or mens rea, to be responsible for a crime. There are some legitimate ways in which a person’s responsibility for criminal acts is diminished or absent” (Schaler).

Insanity is a legitimate way to diminish responsibility in a criminal case without completely ignoring any penalties for such actions. There should be no fear of misuse of this plea as it is difficult to effectively prove in the court of law and many defendants end up spending more time in a state mental institution than in jail for their crimes. The criminally insane do not have more privilege than those who are sane, and do not have more freedom than those who choose not to plea based on their mental illness. This is a huge deterrent for those who think faking mental illness would get their case dismissed entirely. The issue of insanity was brought to light in the 1800s and is still being debated over and over again today. United States cultural needs to keep pushing on into a wider acceptance of those who are mentally ill and needs to provide more widespread and consistent mental health care.

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