Mentally Ill People Accused of Crimes Don’t ‘Get Off’ or ‘Walk Free’

One of the most pervasive and irritating myths about mental illness and crime is that when a mentally ill person is accused of a crime, there are no consequences. It comes up in cases where people are clearly mentally ill and the general view of the public is that the accused has ‘gotten away with’ something, and in cases where people introduce an altered mental state or mental illness as a mitigating circumstance and the public judge and jury, again, suggest that the accused is attempting to weasel out of punishment. The very idea of an ‘insanity defense’ is considered the cheap way out, the easy way of escaping any responsibility for committing a horrible crime; even in a place where people are innocent until proven guilty, the general perception seems to be that mentally ill people are always guilty of the crimes they are accused of, and, to boot, aren’t punished for it.

The actual facts of the matter are, of course, much more complicated. If someone is accused of a crime and taken into custody and appears to have signs of mental illness, a psychiatric evaluation may be requested. People can also ask for an evaluation independently, or their lawyers can order one. In this evaluation, the legal system determines whether the accused is fit to stand trial. If the accused is not, this doesn’t mean the doors of the jail are swung open and the accused merrily walks free.

In fact, one of two things happen. The first is that the system works to make the accused fit to stand trial with the use of forcible medications and other treatments, goal being to have someone to prop up in the dock so the performance of a trial can take place. Alternatively, the accused may be confined indefinitely in an institution. No trial, no chance at due process, just stuck in an institution and dubbed a danger to society; can’t be taken to trial, but can’t be let free either.

Cases where people do go to trial may end with the decision that the mental illness was a mitigating factor and should be considered in sentencing, but people still do time. Sometimes in psychiatric institutions, sometimes not. Their terms of parole may also include mandatory medications and counseling; in some cases, a court order can compel someone to take medication for life or face being put in an institution again. This is ‘getting off scot free,’ according to people who think they know what they’re talking about when it comes to mentally ill people accused of committing crimes.

There’s also much talk of how institutions or psych wards at prisons are cushy, and prisoners are basically rewarded for committing heinous crimes while mentally ill. ‘Where is the justice,’ people ask, when someone who commits a crime is remanded into care. This language betrays both a deep lack of understanding about how the justice system actually works on a mechanical level, and a deep hatred of mentally ill people. A belief that people with mental illness should be punished goes deeper than believing they should be treated like other people moving through the prison system; there is often an added element of wanting the accused to die, to be unable to access any kind of treatment, to be left without any hope of redemption.

Mentally ill people who commit horrible crimes live with those crimes for the rest of their lives, just like people who are not mentally ill do. They have to face the consequences of those crimes at night in their dreams and in the day when they are reminded of them. Those who do access treatment that fits their needs, therapy that benefits them, may start to process the aftermath of those crimes, may want to attempt to make amends, to find a way to atone for what they did. They experience feelings of guilt and remorse too, even if those aren’t always evident and aren’t always performed in the way the general public wants them to be.

The idea that mentally ill people ‘get off’ in the criminal justice system is based, of course, on a retributive model of justice, an eye for an eye approach where crime should be met with imprisonment and torment. People claim that it’s ‘unfair’ to see prisoners being provided with things like health care, and this is for some reason particularly galling when it’s mentally ill prisoners. They’d rather see people who are incompetent to stand trial, who may not understand the proceedings, the severity of the crime, or the situation, forced to sit in a dock and be ‘accountable,’ because retribution, getting even, is so important to them.

Justice founded on a retributive model is inherently flawed for a slew of reasons, and it becomes especially apparent when crimes involve mentally ill suspects. A rehabilitation-based model provides room for people to grow, to change, to get treatment, to develop as human beings, to reshape their world and make changes in their lives. This model, though, is one many people find alien and upsetting, wrong, because it means ‘going free.’ Their focus on punishment ignores the cost of crime to the accused. People who commit crimes do live with the consequences, do face the reality of their experiences, every day, and not always in socially approved ways.

Tormenting people with forced treatment and confinement and isolation is no form of justice. It’s just another form of crime, and it certainly doesn’t mean that people are getting off free and escaping the consequences of their crimes. Lengthy time in institutions is a high price to pay, as is the lifetime of restrictions placed on mentally ill people accused of committing crimes.