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Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

In popular true crime documentaries and movies, viewers are occasionally exposed to cases where the perpetrator appears to suffer from mental illness, such as schizophrenia, psychotic and mood disorders, to name a few.


The presence of a mental health disorder can impact the way court perceives their case, and in some situations, can alter the outcome of their ruling and how they are to be punished for their actions. 80 – 90% of offenders have a diagnosis of mental disorder (Andrews et al, (2010).


The term ‘not criminally responsible’ can allude to an individual’s degree of morally being responsible in a crime. In severe cases where a mental health condition is deemed to have significantly impacted an individual’s decision to commit crime, a lower sentence may be enforced.


Lawyers sometimes use the mental health illness on the defendant's side of the court to argue for the injustice that the perpetrator has faced because of their mental health condition, and how it has led to the outcome of the crime. However, do note that the sentencing depends on the legitimacy of the mental health condition, which often needs to be certified by a professional.


As an example of a case of mental health for reducing a sentence, the recent sentencing of Nicholas Cruz, a now 24-year old school shooter that killed 14 high school students and teachers at Parkland High School in February 2018, has been formally charged with 34 counts of consecutive life sentences, despite claiming to suffer from ‘severe psychiatric problems as well as semantic concerns, body concerns, cognitive concerns and memory complaints’, which were testified as a ‘gross exaggeration’, by Dr Robert Denney, an expert within the field of forensic and clinical neuropsychology. To many, it could have seemed like Cruz was trying to increase the extent of these issues on the impact of his crime.


The issue isn’t with serious mental health illness in the general population and criminal justice system- it’s the overrepresentation of those in the latter. For example, the tumultuous relationship between crime and mental disorder can be reflected in the estimate of 55% of offenders who claim to have a personality disorder, compared to 12% in the general population. Research such as Fazel and Danesh (2002) found that, “typically about one in seven prisoners in western countries have psychotic illnesses or major depression”. Simultaneously, there are findings that show the existence of a serious mental illness alone, without a co-occurring substance use disorder, is not linked to an increased likelihood of criminal behavior, or of recidivism according to Somers 2005, 2008, Skeem et al 2010, Andrews and Bonta 2010.


So, how are genuine cases of mental health conditions dealt with in the criminal justice system?


Courts in most cases, will refer the offender who has proved the legitimacy of their mental illness to a residential psychiatric care facility for them to undergo treatment to restore their mental health. However because of the high demand of cases that seemingly need this, and also due to the COVID-19 pandemic, places within these facilities have been limited, which has prolonged the cases’ sentencing.


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