Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

The Criminalization of Mental Illness: How Theoretical Failures Create Real Problems in the Criminal Justice System

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

The Criminalization of Mental Illness: How Theoretical Failures Create Real Problems in the Criminal Justice System

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

When Andrea Yates drowned her five children, she believed she was preventing Satan from infiltrating their souls.1 Rusty Yates blamed both the mental health system and the criminal justice system for his wife's actions and also for her initial conviction.2 Andrea Yates suffered from post-partum depression and psychosis; had attempted suicide twice; had been hospitalized on several occasions for psychiatric treatment; and was found not guilty by reason of insanity in her 2006 retrial.3 Although Yates likely will spend the rest of her life in a mental institution, she will receive mental health treatment throughout her time at the facility.4 Yates would have spent her life in prison without access to comparable mental health treatment if her original conviction had been upheld.5 Yates escaped this fate through her subsequent insanity verdict, but many individuals who suffer from mental health problems and who are convicted of crimes and incarcerated in the United States are not so fortunate.6

Reaching a result contrary to Yates's insanity verdict, the Supreme Court upheld the first- degree murder conviction of Eric Clark in 2006. 7 Clark shot and killed a police officer because he believed that aliens impersonating government agents were taking over Flagstaff, Arizona, and bullets were the only way to stop these aliens.8 The trial court found him guilty of first-degree murder, and he will serve a life sentence in prison even though the trial judge noted that Clark "was indisputably afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia at the time of the shooting."9 The Court held that states may choose how to define insanity because "due process imposes no single canonical formulation of legal insanity."10 Affording this interpretive freedom to the states is necessary, according to the Court, because mixing "legal concepts of mental illness" and "medical concepts of mental abnormality creates a great deal of disagreement among medical professionals.11 The Court also held that preventing a defendant from relying on mental illness to negate the specific intent of the crime was not a due process violation.12

Both Andrea Yates and Eric Clark committed terrible acts while suffering from severe mental illness. The disparate outcomes of these two cases serve as one indicator of the way in which the current criminal justice system fails people who suffer from mental disorders in the United States. Other indicators come from available data about the prevalence of mental illness within U.S. prisons and jails. One study estimated that roughly fifteen percent of inmates13 in the United States in 2004 suffered from severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorder, and major depression.14 These numbers do not include inmates suffering from any other mental health disorders or undiagnosed mental health problems. The U.S. Department of Justice found that "[a]t midyear 2005 more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem."15 However, of the large number of inmates with mental health problems and disorders, only seventeen percent of local jail inmates, twenty-four percent of federal prisoners, and thirty-four percent of state prisoners received any mental health treatment after admission.16 These combined statistics paint a grim picture of the pervasiveness of mental health problems in the criminal justice system and the failures of that system to address such problems.

This Note argues that the policies and practices of the U.S. criminal justice system fail to achieve any articulated purpose of punishment when they provide inadequate mental health resources to incarcerated persons suffering from mental disorders. This Note ultimately demonstrates that, despite some drawbacks, emphasizing a rehabilitative approach that uses insights from the juvenile justice system is the best way to serve all people with mental disorders in the adult criminal justice system. …

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