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Mental Disorders and Crime, Research Paper Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1673

Research Paper

Introduction

In the arena of criminal justice, the problem of mental disease or disorder as the cause of crime has always presented the court system with ethical and legal challenges. The public demands that criminals be punished for their actions. However, as knowledge and awareness of mental illness increases, the question of responsibility becomes more difficult to determine. Even expert psychoanalysts are rarely certain of how influential a mental disease may be in compelling crime, and the public and the courts are also sensitive as to how claims of mental illness may be falsely presented. This enormous problem notwithstanding, however, it is known that severe mental illness exists and may often trigger crime, and specifically schizophrenia. Efforts to identify the genuine cases of this particular disease, while complicated, must be made if a judicial system is to act in an ethical way.

Views on General Mental Illness and Crime

No matter what view is taken of how mental disorders may apply in criminal cases, the fact that mental disease has been widely diagnosed in a more than substantial part of the criminal population cannot be challenged. Whether, again, these diagnoses are either accurate or instrumental in how the accused is sentenced, they are there, and in huge numbers. The United States Department of Justice released a report in 1999 which claimed that “…on any given day there were approximately 283,000 persons with severe mental illnesses incarcerated in federal and state prisons” (Erikson, Erikson, 2008, p. 4). This number was four times the amount of mentally ill people then in treatment institutions.

When most people consider crime as triggered by mental disease, an automatic skepticism arises, and one that is reflected in court procedures and determinations of mental illness. With very few exceptions, it is virtually impossible to disprove a claim of mental illness. There is no scientific evidence to reveal it in a person except, again, in very rare cases where brain functions are visibly impaired. Most people within society are sane, and like to be known as such; however, by the same token, most people are also familiar with the forms mental illness is expected to take in showing itself, and they could very easily “put on a show” to convince even trained doctors. The natural progression of this thinking, then, is that, faced with long imprisonment or even death, a smart criminal will plead insanity. Not responsible for the crime because they are incapable of understanding it, they cannot be reasonably punished.

Another problem, and one affecting the ethical approach to criminal justice and mental disease, lies within how crime itself is defined. In sociological terms, it can be argued that any person who willfully commits a crime is mentally unfit because a choice is made that cannot  be inherently sane. Then, it seems that new mental “disorders” are frequently being tried in the courts, to ease punishment on the offender by claiming that some form of mental deficiency is at play. “Road rage”, when a driver becomes violent and irrational because of a traffic incident, was first mentioned in 1994 and is increasingly used as a defense in criminal trials. In this “disorder”, an otherwise mentally balanced person loses control and cannot, as the defense claims, be held responsible. While many refuse to consider this an actual illness, “road rage” has not gone away as a defense in criminal justice, and “…others, including the psychologist Arnold Nerenberg in California, consider it to be a specific psychological condition” (Jacoby, Youngson, 2004, p. 1842).

In an age when illnesses such as bipolar disorder are common in ordinary citizens, the lines between mental illness and ordinary human psychology are becoming increasingly blurred. For every new criminal trial that reveals a new, or just identified, form of mental disease, public outcry grows louder. What is largely unknown, however, is how minimally mental disease defenses actually play out in the courts. It is widely believed that they occur frequently, but that is usually because such cases tend to get the most media attention. In reality, mental illness is a fractional element in criminal justice: “Criminal defendants use the insanity defense in less than 1 or 2 percent of all American criminal cases…The defense is usually not successful; only about one-third of insanity pleas succeed” (Singer, La Fond, 2010, p. 521). This does not, however, remove the need to examine as carefully as possible how mental illness relates to crime.

Modern Research on Schizophrenia and Crime

In a sense, schizophrenia serves to illustrate the wider problem criminal justice faces in confronting any mental illness. It is, although an accepted, legally and medically recognized disease, widely misunderstood and open to many manifestations.

The word itself means “split mind”, and this is hardly an exact description of a specific illness. Popular thinking long viewed schizophrenia as a multiple personality disorder, but that is only one, and a rare, example of how the disease may show itself. Most typically, schizophrenia is a radical chemical imbalance in the brain which can trigger psychotic episodes, either mild or extremely violent.  As mental illness relates to crime, schizophrenia is no modern, possibly invalid, disorder. It is the most powerful of all mental illness claims, no matter what justice is being sought.

It is not surprising that a psychotic episode would lead to violence; more unexpected, in fact, is how schizophrenia can take many mild forms of expression, and/or be internalized into purely self-destructive behavior. As far as criminal justice is concerned, however, it is indisputably at the heart of most genuinely asserted claims of mental disease: “…There is now recent, incontrovertible scientific evidence for a significant relationship between crime and schizophrenia” (Raine, 2006, p. 4). When a criminal is shown to have acted because of voices in their head, it is schizophrenia at work. When hallucinations convince someone that violence is the necessary means to protect themselves or anything else, this is the disease at its most evident.

One of the most influential factors in schizophrenia’s role in crime lies within when it usually manifests itself. The illness first appears most often in the teen years, or in early adulthood. This adds a complication, as these years are usually the most stressful in a person’s life. Then, schizophrenia is marked by another, highly complicated factor; it is definitely a genetically induced illness, but it is equally created by environmental issues, and there are no clear determinations of which is the more powerful cause. All that can be safely asserted is that people with histories of schizophrenia in their families, as well as undesirable living conditions, are likely candidates to suffer from it. Interestingly, one common factor within the environment-as-cause scenario is that urban living invariably doubles the risk factor.

This leads to a logical, if unfortunate, probability. As schizophrenics develop their illness in these city worlds, they are situated where violence is both more easily committed and more frequently inspired. Then, urban living adds other dangers into the mix for the untreated schizophrenic. Studies do show that “…The rates of violence for patients with schizophrenia is lower when compared to patients with…substance abuse” (Mills, et al., 2010, p. 37). However, what this obviously fails to address is the schizophrenic population which falls, as many untreated sufferers do, into recreational drug use.

Schizophrenia can first appear in a variety of ways, most of which are not at all aggressive or violent. Usually, the disease reveals itself in a withdrawn behavior and disconnected thinking and communication. Many symptoms share a common result, that of a severing of mental processes and associations. Speech becomes difficult because thoughts are hard to form, and anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure, is also often a development. The latter is, in fact, why many new schizophrenics turn to recreational drugs; they feel lost and cut off from sensation.

Most schizophrenics, sadly, go through life either undiagnosed or in, at best, a depressed and drug-induced state of lethargy. The delusional, violent schizophrenic is the exception. However, in terms of how mental illness is regarded in criminal justice, this is the most reliable sort of case of genuine mental disease that can be addressed as such.

Conclusion

If a criminal justice system is to operate within any ethical boundaries, the actual existence of schizophrenia must be taken into account as a valid removal of the offender’s responsibility. Other disorders and illnesses, either recognized or newly discovered, may command varying levels of influence in a trial. This is not an easy road, nor will it reasonably get easier. Schizophrenia, however, authentically diagnosed, leaves little room for doubt as to severe disease triggering the crime.

There are ways this can be known. One is that medicines of different kinds are proven to alleviate schizophrenic symptoms, including hallucinations and delusions. This informs the system that the rehabilitative treatment supposedly at the heart of criminal justice, along with the punitive, is possible. Then, it has been established that lack of institutional care for schizophrenics in the mainstream has led to great crime caused by them: “The transition to community-based care has led to a well-documented rise in encounters of people with severe mental illness with the criminal justice system (Mueser, Jeste, 2008, p. 510).

As far as all mental illnesses are concerned as applying to criminal justice, schizophrenia demands the greatest focus by virtue of its undeniable presence. Efforts to identify the genuine cases of this particular disease, while complicated, must be made if a judicial system is to act in an ethical way.

References

Erikson, P. E., and Erikson, S. K. (2008.) Crime, Punishment, and Mental Illness: Law and the Behavioral Sciences in Conflict. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Jacoby, D. B., and Youngson, R. M. (2004.) Encyclopedia of Family Health. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish.

Mills, J. F., Kroner, D. G., and Morgan, R. D. (2010.) Clinician’s Guide to Violence Risk Assessment. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Mueser, K. T., and Jeste, D. V. (2008.) Clinical Handbook of Schizophrenia. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Raine, A. (2006.) Crime and Schizophrenia: Causes and Cures. New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Singer, R. G., and La Fond, J. Q. (2010.) Criminal Law. New York, NY: Aspen Publishers.

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