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Severe mental illness and the death penalty

March 20, 2017 | By Toni Rose and Greg Hansch

Over the course of our state’s history, people with severe mental illnesses have faced serious consequences in the criminal justice system. All too often, these individuals faced capital punishment, a sentence that frequently extends an already emotionally difficult ordeal for family members, involves years of litigation and occurs at high financial cost to taxpayers.

The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for persons with intellectual disabilities and for juveniles — because medical research shows those individuals do not have the same mental capacity as fully-functioning adults. People experiencing symptoms of severe mental illnesses are clearly in the same category and should be treated the same way.

Assessing capital punishment in these unique and infrequent cases disregards the growing scientific consensus that severe mental illness can significantly impair one’s ability to make rational decisions, understand the consequences of one’s actions and control one’s impulses. The diagnosis process is lengthy, detailed and accurate. The capital punishment approach sweeps aside our collective responsibility to provide adequate care options for persons with mental health disabilities.

In January, the Texas House Select Committee on Mental Health released its interim report and recommendations. The report acknowledged “an estimated 30 percent of inmates have one or more serious mental illnesses.” To address the issue of individuals with serious mental illness, one must broach the complex relationships between the mental health community and the criminal justice system.

It is clear that a lack of access to treatment can directly result in costly, non-therapeutic criminal justice system involvement. Individuals who are guilty should be held accountable for their actions, but we propose that individuals who qualify for the severe mental illness exemption from the death penalty should be subject to criminal prosecution, and if convicted, should serve terms of life without parole.

Our proposed exemption would not apply to a broad range of individuals. Only those with medical diagnoses such as schizophrenia, schizo-effective disorder, paranoia and other psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression should be considered. It would apply on a case-by-case basis; a judge or jury would consider all of the evidence to determine whether a person had a severe mental illness with active symptoms at the time of the crime.

When individuals with severe mental illnesses enter the criminal justice system and are not appropriately diverted to treatment, the state runs the risk of executing innocent people. Individuals with severe mental illnesses run a higher risk of being executed, typically after bending to police pressure, firing their counsel and representing themselves or refusing to help with their own defense. A 2012 study found that approximately 70 percent of wrongfully convicted defendants with mental illness confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. This compares to only 10 percent of defendants without a mental illness.

Mental illness is not a choice. We as a society have already answered the question of how to address persons with severe mental disabilities as it relates to the criminal justice system. Our challenge nationally, and as a state, is to ensure this approach is now reflected in all aspects of the law.

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