Monday, July 03, 2006

A few days ago, the US Supreme Court ruled on another wrinkle in the insanity defense. An Arizona man, clearly schizophrenic, argued that his illness prevented him from forming the requisite intent to commit a crime. According to the New York Times:

The case was brought by an Arizona man who was a teenager suffering from paranoid schizophrenia when he shot and killed a police officer. He was convicted of violating a law that makes it a crime to kill a police officer intentionally, and he argued that the delusions caused by his illness had prevented him from forming that specific intent.

The key to the case involved the word, "intent." The defendant argued that because he was schizophrenic, he couldn't have formed any intent. The Supreme Court, keeping it's ideological purity intact, essentially dodged the issue with a narrow ruling. Writing for the court, Justice David Souter said that the states were so varied in their approaches to insanity, that there is no single, unambiguous standard for legal insanity. It's a sad state of affairs that this is true.

The court system is teetering between three models of criminal behavior: Moral, psychosocial, and medical. The moral model attributes criminal behavior to immorality. If you punish the immoral behavior, it will stop. The psychosocial model attributes criminal behavior to a complex interaction among family, community and economic causes. The medical model holds that criminal behavior is the result of genetic and biological causes.

All three models have their elements of truth, but the moral model holds sway, to the detriment of the other two. Criminal behavior does need to be punished, but, we should also attend to the social and economic framework in which criminal behavior occurs. Social inequity is the fertilizer in which criminal behavior grows.

We are becoming convinced that schizophrenia is primarily a medical problem. Why are we holding schizophrenics accountable for their behavior in the same ways that "normal" people are? It's a sad thing that we no longer see social services as a force for good. Even though crime rates drop during good economic times, even though education is a proven route to rehabilitation, we are still committed to the moral model to the exclusion of the others. It's a shame that compassion is passe.

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