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Civil Commitment and the Mentally Ill

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Insanity is defined as “The principal legal doctrine permitting consideration of mental abnormality in assessing criminal liability. Those acquitted of criminal charges as Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity are typically required to spend an indeterminate period of treatment in a secure mental health facility until they are no longer dangerous to self or others”.(Greene & Heilbrun). Each state carries its own statutes on how to deal with the insanity defense. In the state of California the follow the M’Naghten rule.
The M’Naghten rule was established in 1843 after an Englishman by the name of Daniel M’Naghten murdered the secretary of the British prime minister. M’Naghten suffered from delusions that made him believe that he was being stalked and plotted against. He was charged with murder and plead not guilty by reason of insanity. He got off under his insanity plea, but ended up in a mental institution for the remainder of his life. This infuriated some people so Queen Victoria imposed the M’Naghten rule as a stricter guideline (or test) for the insanity defense. This rule implies that a person that commits a crime did not understand the difference between right and wrong at the time the crime had taken place. It must be proved by the defense that the person on trial has some sort of “disease of the mind” that would cause them to commit the crimes they have. It excuses the behavior that took place in the event that insanity can be proved.
Because the M’Naghten rule is still somewhat vague California also uses the Model Penal Code. This code states that “an individual is not liable for criminal offenses if, when he or she committed the crime or crimes, the individual suffered from a mental disease or defect that resulted in the individual lacking the substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her actions or to conform his or her actions to requirements under the law” (Cornell University Law School, 2013).
The insanity defense is used mainly when facing serious charges (i.e. murder, violent offences etc…). It is normally thought that the insanity defense is used often, but because it is extremely difficult to prove it “used in only about 1% of cases in the U.S.” (Schouten & Silver, 2012). The success rate is “only a fraction of the 1%” (Frontline,2013).
Some of the major criticisms that arise with the insanity defense are: the inability to test accurately and release of violent offenders into society after acquittal. Insanity as stated before has to be proven, unfortunately there aren’t any tests that can be performed to state that an offender was actually mentally incapable of understanding his or her actions. The only real way to actually determine this is to study the behavior of this person before and after the crime. When it comes to the acquittal of an offender who has gotten off on the not guilty by reason of insanity plea (NGRI) many believe they are not held responsible for their actions. They are released (sometimes) back into society where they may or may not commit another violent crime.
Because there are no reliable tests to prove insanity psychologist are needed to provide an ultimate opinion as to whether a person is mentally ill. Unfortunately this can’t be done without backlash from the public. Psychologists are needed to speak for the criminally insane so that the illness can be managed if needed. There isn’t any fixing of the issue at hand if they are locked away in a prison system. The use of psychologists helps determine whether a person should be charged with the crime they committed. The public belief taints these decisions in a way because many believe that anyone who pleads the insanity defense will automatically get off. “In fact, very few defendants actually succeed with the insanity defense. Among those who are found guilty by reason of insanity, virtually none are let off” (Lally, 1997). It is a common misconception.
Some of the ethical issues associated with psychologists opinions would be the disregard for the actual mental state of the accused. The story of Timothy Souders pointed out the lack of actual attention that some prison psychologists paid to the inmates. Many prisoners were labeled as malingers (or fakers). Instead of being treated for obvious symptoms of delusion Souders was chained to a table for several hours out of the day. He was treated as if he were a violent offender in a solitary cell. These actions resulted in his death. Neglect seems to be one of the biggest ethical issues when it comes to mentally ill criminals.
When a mentally ill person is not seen as insane and is convicted of their charges and incarcerated they run the risk of being mistreated by prison officials and inmates. They may get in spats and more trouble due to the failure to transition in the environment of prison. Instead of being looked at as mentally ill they may take on a roll of a repeat offender to the lack of understanding of prison rules and protocol. This will lead to more prison time or solitary confinement.
In order for psychological treatment to be effective mentally ill inmates must first be recognized. Any inmate who at some point tried to plead a case of insanity should be re-evaluated upon entering the prison. In order for this to happen mental health professionals should be permanently employed with the prison systems to create effective measures of treatment. Prison officials should also be trained every few months to recognize the signs of mental illnesses, so that at some point they can maybe correct the early signs of mental illness. If these steps aren’t taken mental health programs may not be available to help manage the sick.
Cornell University Law School. (2013) Insanity defense. Retrieved from:
Frontline (2013) A crime of insanity. Retrieved from:
Green, E., & Heilbrun, K. (2011). Wrightsman’s psychology and the legal system. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning
Lally, S., (1997). Drawing a clear line between criminals and the criminally insane. Retrieved from: The Insanity Defense
Schouten, M.D., & Silver, J. J.D.(2012) Almost a psychopath: The insanity defense. Retrieved from:

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