Should Mental Illness Be Taken Into Account in Determining Punishment

The penal system has been no help in alleviating the stigma attached to mental illness, routinely and historically treating mentally unstable inmates with just the same harsh approach as their criminally insane counterparts.Indeed, the distinction between these two populations is significant; however, authorities have long been reluctant to entertain such a concept.Similar to the treatment availed to them in institutions, mentally ill inmates have a history of being shackled, beaten and deprived of the most basic human needs.

One might readily argue how state and federal penitentiaries exist for one reason and one reason only: to lock up the criminal and throw away the key.

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The conspicuous absence of rehabilitation programs speaks to the attitude society openly harbors about its convicted felons – keep them out of sight forever. Only recently has the idea of rehabilitation over incarceration been considered throughout contemporary correctional institutions as an alternative toward addressing the imprisoned mentally ill, a population many believe are deserving of this option because of their blatant lack of free will in making morally responsible choices.

The perpetuation of criminal activity, coupled with the severely limited resources availed to the state and federal criminal justice system, has made it almost compulsory for the penal system to implement comprehensive mental health programs not only to help alleviate prison overcrowding but also to rescue those inmates who do not belong in the penal system. Most people like to think that human beings possess free will, at least with regard to a wide range of actions.

In contrast, however, some believe that certain people lack the aspect of free will. Many great theorists have contended that the reason some people may, indeed, lack free will is not so much due to the determined nature of their choices and behavior, but rather due to the fact that their behavior is not responsive to their choices in such a manner as to reflect those who do possess free will.

When examining this viewpoint in further detail as it relates to mental illness playing an integral role in punishment, it is important to consider whether or not an individual can truly possess free will while at the same time having one’s choices and behaviors determined by a greater force, as well. When one attempts to distinguish the principle essence of such theorists as David Hume, it is essential that one understand the difference between free will and determinism. When one is cast forward by ay of determinism, it is as though one has absolutely no control over the various and sundry occurrences that take place during one’s life. Free will, on the other hand, speaks to the concept of having full authority over one’s aspirations and ultimate direction, reflecting the exact opposite of those ruled by determinism. Having grasped the difference in meaning, the student may then want to argue that Hume’s position was more than significantly biased toward the concept of determinism.

One might readily surmise how an individual whose life is ruled by determinism could realistically become void of any moralistic tendencies, inasmuch as one can claim that responsibility for any action would not fall upon the individual but rather the fateful path his is forced to follow. The manner in which this concept relates to Hume’s radical principle is such that one might not be compelled to fight his own destiny, choosing instead to follow a path that is not always pristine and virtuous.

The message that Hume is trying to convey is one of responsibility – all man’s ideas come from impressions of things that have occurred before. Contrarily and without assuming responsibility for one’s own actions in light of this assertion, the world would be nothing if not a jumble of adulterated confusion. By acting upon a basis of Hume’s principle, one effectively relinquishes all accountability for his actions and – in the case of considering mental illness when doling out punishment – does not deserve the option of rehabilitation over incarceration.

A world without moral liability, according to Hume, is certainly no place for a civilized being. “There is a species of skepticism, antecedent to all study and philosophy, which is much inculcated by Descartes and others as a sovereign preservative against error and precipitate judgement. It recommends a universal doubt, not only of all our former opinions and principles, but also of our very faculties; of whose veracity, say they, we must assure ourselves, by a chain of reasoning, deduced from some original principle which cannot possibly be fallacious or deceitful” (Hume PG).

Characteristic of humanity’s constant quest for the concept of meaning, the journey of understanding has come to represent myriad things to myriad people, ultimately rendering any universal explanation virtually impossible. The problem with meaning as it relates to free will’s impact upon one’s moral responsibility is attempting to successfully pinpoint a single yet comprehensive connotation to its overall concept; however, this cannot be achieved as long as any two individuals harbor decidedly different interpretations, which is usually the case when debating this highly controversial subject matter.

Critics have long questioned the theory of free will existing within the shadow of determinism, arguing how difficult it is to realistically determine if people exhibit certain behaviors out of fear of consequence or because they have the power to take control of their own lives, often causing them to become neglectful and unwise. Unlike other living beings, for what is possible is pretty much fixed by instincts and reflexes, one may argue how people initiate much of what they do, whether that means for better and for worse.

Clearly, the connection one might make between free will and behavior based upon Hume’s conjecture leads one to believe that people are much more likely to act out in such a manner that is motivated only by their personal desire to do so, rather than depending upon automatic reaction or stimulation.

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“The skeptic, therefore, had better keep within his proper sphere, and display those philosophical objections, which arise from more profound researches” (Hume PG).

Society has not been very successful in addressing its mental illness problem; one only has to witness the nation’s tremendous homeless population, obtain criminal justice statistics and examine the number of people currently taking psycho tropic medication in order to underscore the prevalence of mental illness. Understanding the origins of mental health is paramount to gaining further understanding of how to address punishment issues directly associated with mental illness, which requires the examination of myriad cultural and genetic elements that have been suspect in the study of human behavior.

Recognition and treatment of mental illness has undergone a tremendous metamorphosis over the past three centuries, with the very definition of “insanity” having encountered a most significant evolution. What was sane and what was normal was completely left open for interpretation by the powers that be, ultimately sealing the fate of many a mentally unbalanced individual whose only crime was chemical disparity. Institutional inmates were forced to live out their lives in formidable surroundings where they were cloistered in small, dark, dank rooms accommodated with one floor mattress for some half a dozen people.

Chained in place, the inmates were forbidden to enjoy any of what one would consider necessary daily elements for sustaining sound mind and body: fresh air, sunlight and nutritional sustenance; along with regular beatings, the unfortunate victims of ignorance were deprived of virtually every common decency known to man. A handful of professionals from the medical community sought to defend the legitimate nature of insanity and tried to explain the need for medical attention; however, their attempts fell upon deaf ears, and their reputations were immediately tainted.

The mentally ill were lumped together with the criminally insane, with officials making no distinction whatsoever between the two, inasmuch as the former “were not recognized as sick people and were accused of having abandoned themselves to shameful and forbidden practices with the devil, sorcerers and other demons” (History of Mental Illness). Ancient Egyptians understood the inherent connection between the body and mind, supporting the notion that if something was amiss in one’s life it could easily cause one a bout of mental instability.

Their approach was simple and straightforward: talk it out and rejoice in religion. The combination of these two elements was believed to empower the individual with internal strength that would ultimately overrule the continuation of any mental imbalance. Similarly, Aristotle and Socrates – the logical beings that they were – also recognized mental illness for what it truly was and prescribed such cures as soothing music to help alleviate melancholia.

Hippocrates followed suit by prescribing a natural vegetable diet and exercise as a means by which to overcome mental illness (History of Mental Illness). It was not until the concept of the “mind” began to overtake such simplistic approaches, along with blaming the victim for such a disgraceful downfall, that the entire notion of mental illness began to shift for the worse. Dual diagnosis presents yet another concern where mentally ill offenders are concerned, a situation where an individual is diagnosed as being both mentally ill and a drug addict.

While it is wholly possible to be dually diagnosed with a different secondary disease, drug abuse ranks high on the list. Research findings indicate that mental illness leads into drug abuse, inasmuch as the mentally ill partake of recreational drugs no differently than their mentally stable counterparts. What does separate the two groups, however, is what is termed downward drift, meaning that “as a consequence of their illness they may find themselves living in marginal neighborhoods where drug use prevails” (Dual Diagnosis).

In these cases, it is customary to address the drug problem before approaching treatment for mental illness. There are a number of social and environmental factors that encourage criminal delinquency – one in particular is overlooked more than the rest when it comes to, for example, juvenile delinquency: mental illness. Indeed, an adolescent who is suffering from any one of many forms of mentally illness can display myriad socially unacceptable behaviors; within this mindset, juvenile delinquency has been found to be a prevalent occurrence.

Considered for decades to be a disease of the insane, mental conditions like depression that intensify juvenile delinquency have finally been recognized for the debilitating and emotionally unbalancing illnesses they truly are. With an astounding nineteen million Americans suffering from clinical depression, the disease can no longer be looked upon as nothing more than merely the blues. Additionally, another five percent are victims of occasional despondency, with one of every six people succumbing to a serious or major depressive episode at some point in life (Clinical Depression).

Depression often hits the elderly more than any other age group; however, with each passing year the average age of sufferers continues to drop as depression in young people is on the rise. Indeed, mentally ill offenders have much to contend with in their own way; as such, their punishment needs to fit their mental stability. If an offender is convicted of aggravated assault yet lacks the capacity to ascertain that he actually committed a crime, then it would seem prudent that he be given the right to appropriate counseling as a means by which to overcome his tendencies.

However, the implementation of the insanity plea has allowed for perfectly normal criminals to reap the rehabilitative benefits typically bestowed upon the mentally ill, which has served to compromise the very foundation of this legal loophole (Harley 45). The theoretical implications contend that far too many people are crying insanity as a means by which to evade punishment for a crime they willfully committed, knowing full well that if they can achieve an insanity status, the penalty they receive will be significantly less overall, if they receive any.

Clearly, intent does not have any relevance to its determination; as such, the tactics and strategies of both the prosecution and the defense have little, if any, bearing on how insanity is determined. The implications of such a problem speak to the overall distortion of insanity, as well as illustrate how much more difficult it makes it for the truly mentally ill to secure a legitimate insanity plea (Harley 45). Re-training the mentally ill offender to become positive, contributing members of society has always proven to be a challenge for officials in charge of rehabilitation.

Myriad programs have been implemented throughout history to achieve this goal but according to those in the field, none have proven as effective as the treatment approach. In attempting to put back the missing elements of a stable and productive person, such programs as behavioral therapy have been said to be instrumental in realigning otherwise maladjusted individuals as opposed to the harsh approach of boot camps and shock incarceration programs. Critics of such programs contend that such brutal methods do nothing but instigate more of the same behavior the recovery programs seek to overcome.

If delinquency is “rooted in personality characteristics rather than in external forces” (Banks et al 49), then it does not make sense to employ this type of rehabilitation. Implementing behavior therapy is one way of addressing the issue of mentally ill offenders whose deviant tendencies lead to criminal activity. With the help of professional therapists, law enforcement agencies are learning the art of behavior therapy as a means by which to control otherwise unreachable mentally ill delinquents.

The objective of behavior therapy is to first assess and then treat mental problems that cause people to act abnormally. The current consensus among mental health professionals is that behaviors responsible for causing distress or preventing normal functioning in daily life are considered abnormal. There is a social standard by which all members are expected to abide; however, when an individual shows a propensity for straying from that social norm, behavior therapy theories are more than likely applied to determine the problem’s origin and ultimate treatment.

There exist myriad influences that can prompt a person into sidestepping what is considered to be normal behavior, including mental disorders, physical diseases and stress-related issues. Experts report successful treatment outcome and maintenance for dealing with mentally ill offenders, inasmuch as behavior therapy theories focus upon unconscious conflicts that cause anxiety or maladaptive behavior. In effect, these myriad theories represent the means by which therapists are able to assess, diagnose, treat and finally heal their mentally ill patients. News reports that usually frame mental illness in the context of violence and crime are giving rise to stereotypes which stigmatize de-institutionalized mentally ill people. Thus, the challenge facing journalists is addressing deep-rooted and largely unjustified public perceptions about mental illness and violent crimes” (Smellie 25).

In order to work toward a solution to the overwhelming inadequacy of mental health resources in contemporary penal systems, grants must be both created and obtained to address the following issues: Housing the mentally ill in places other than jail and prison •Revisiting community mental health centers from the 1960s and 1970s •Assembling a task force of researchers to undertake myriad projects •Assessing mental health issues in minority communities •Exploring mental health issues in African-American communities •Providing a more active role by the clergy in reference to mental health issues, especially in African-American communities •Researching the correlation between mental health, crime and recidivism, with particular emphasis upon minority populations Conducting ongoing research for early identification programs, prerelease programs, transitional care management programs and effective parole/probation programs •Maintaining consistency in all programs from start to finish (Clinical Depression and African-Americans). Clearly, continuum of care is the key for the incarcerated mentally ill, a model consisting of three distinct phases: jail/prison; community mental health programs; and probation/parole. Within this continuum resides effective pre-release programs for all incarcerated mentally ill inmates; ongoing substance abuse and literacy programs; and behavior modification programs.

Activities for daily living would include employment, job training and retraining through vocational rehabilitation programs, state employment services, adult ex-offender job programs and effective communication programs; and alternatives to incarceration programs for the mentally ill and dual diagnosis. Are all delinquents created equal? Indeed, there are myriad levels of criminal activity that land offenders in jail, with a percentage of those criminals committing their crimes under the duress of mental illness. These prisoners, who many believe are deserving of severe punishment, often do not have full control of their faculties.

These orphans of society are compelled by an emotional or mental imbalance that provokes them to display deviant behavior toward society and their fellow human beings. Clearly, such individuals need treatment, not prison; rehabilitative help is in order for these offenders, not a lifetime behind bars. By placing the criminal into long-term therapy, there is at least a chance of rehabilitation there likely would not be in a full security prison. To stray from the norm is to deviate from socially acceptable behavior; when one is deviant, he goes against the very essence of what society has deemed acceptable.

One of the easiest things in life is to deviate from what is considered by the masses to be normal; in fact, Morpheus points out that it is often considerably more difficult to remain upon a straight and narrow path with the myriad obstacles that appear in daily life. Therefore, one can readily argue how deviant behavior has found its niche within contemporary society, even to the point of infiltrating what is considered to be a standard of normalcy; as such, appropriate corrective measures must be applied in order to expect any semblance of rehabilitation for the mentally ill criminal.


  • Banks, Terry & Dabbs, James M. , Jr. “Salivary testosterone and cortisol in a delinquent and violent urban subculture. ” The Journal of Social Psychology 136, (1996): 49. Clinical Depression. 25 April 2004 http://www. nmha. org/ccd/index. cfm
  • Clinical Depression and African-Americans. 25 April 2004 http://www. intelihealth. com/specials/depression/htm
  • DeprAfrAmer. html Dual Diagnosis: Substance Abuse And Mental Illness. 25 April 2004 http://www. schizophrenia. com/family/dualdiag. html Harley, Debra A.

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