The complex relationship between Mental Health, Crime and the criminal justice system

In the criminal justice system, mental health presents a lot of legal issues. Especially when the individual in question has mental health issues but is not officially diagnosed.  For example, when it comes to murder, under Commonwealth law in Australia, unsoundness of mind can be used as a defence to a criminal charge. Application of this law means that people who are charged with a crime cannot enter a plea or be found guilty because of a mental disorder. 

They are deemed as not fit for trial and become forensic patients. Others are released back into the community with conditions. For the courts to determine mental health as the main cause of the crime, expert witnesses have to attest to the mental status of the individual. And, depending on the nature of the crime, some are released back into the community with conditions, others are treated in a mental health institution. The issue with mental health is that, diagnosing certain mental health issues relies on a set criterion and that criteria changes from time to time.

For example, an NSW study found that 48 per cent of reception inmates and 38% of sentenced had suffered a mental illness in a previous 12 months. This is when the definition of a mental disorder was limited to psychosis, affective disorder or anxiety. When a broader definition of psychiatric disorder was used it found that 74% of the NSW inmate population was affected. The numbers show that there is a higher incidence of mental health in prison than in the general population. For example, in Victoria, 51% of prisoners reported to have received or have been assessed by a psychiatrist or doctor for emotional or mental health problems in the last 12 months.

In another study of mental health and crimes committed, only 7.5% were directly related to symptoms of mental health. the study analysed 429 crimes committed by 143 offenders with three major types of mental illness. 3% of their crimes were directly related to symptoms of depression, 4% were to symptoms of schizophrenia and 10% symptoms of bipolar disorder. The study concludes by saying “the vast majority of people with mental health issues are not violent, not criminal and dangerous” this is supported by the fact that only a small number of criminals who use insanity as a defence are given a lighter sentence.

Invoking mental health as defence takes responsibility away from the person who committed the crime. The standard of culpability is based on the reasonable person test, in other words, what would an average person with intact judgment do in a similar situation. There are some mental health illnesses that society has deemed the person cannot be held accountable if they commit a crime while in the altered mental state. For example, interpretive disorders or split personality. The assumption here is that people with mental health have a defect in the brain, and if they did not have the issue, they would not have committed the said crime.

  Acts of evil on the hand are a mystery because if it is not mental illness, what could cause an otherwise rational human being to take the life of another. what would cause a Mum like Susan Smith to strap her children in a car and drive to the river and watch them drown and go on national TV and lie to the whole world.  Did OJ Simpson kill his ex-wife? Unless he reveals it to us himself, we will never know. What brings a person to the point that they go to church, full of people minding their business, looking children and women in the face and opening fire? The mass shooting in Vegas is even more puzzling, this was a man from the outside had everything going on for him, what got him to the point of causing death just for the sake of it.  

Issues in Law

The law differentiates between intent and Motive. The motive in criminal law is described as circumstances that induce an action. The motive in its self is not a crime, however, in criminal proceedings, a motive is allowed to prove in order to make plausible the accused reasons for committing a crime. The intent, on the other hand, is synonymous with Men’s rea, which means the mental state shows liability, which is enforced by law as a crime.

  In a criminal proceeding, a motive is not needed for the verdict. But it is taken into account when sentencing, Motive is broken down into three categories; biological, social and personal. The motive is taken into account in cases involving abused women who kill their husbands or partners. 

Intent to commit a crime means that the individual while fully aware of their actions and consequences acted to bring about the intended outcome. The problem here is that even battered women who kill are most of the times fully aware of their actions. Under the law, battered women who kill their partners, are given lighter sentences because the law takes into account societal inequality.

In conclusion, when a crime is committed involving the taking of another life or mass shooting, people are quick to try and establish a narrative. The way I see it, there are two competing narratives, is it mental health or the person responsible for the crime just evil?

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