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Greg Bloom

Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

May is Mental Health Month, a time set aside to reflect upon the prevalence of mental illness in our society and the great potential for healing through proper treatment. As it draws to a close, it’s important to highlight one often-overlooked mental health issue: the prevalence of the mentally ill on our nation’s death rows.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty is unconstitutional for people with mental retardation (Atkins v. Virginia). It did not, however, exclude offenders with severe mental illness from the death penalty. Dozens of people with severe mental disorders have been executed in the U.S., and as many as 1 in 5 death row inmates may suffer from mental illness in some form. (The video Executing the Insane: The Case of Scott Panetti is a powerful illumination of one deeply sad case of a man who insisted upon representing himself in court, attempted to subpoena Jesus, and believed he was being persecuted by demons for spreading the word of the Gospel. Last year, the Supreme Court blocked Panetti’s execution, though in a recent hearing he was once again deemed competent to be executed.)

One may wonder what penological interest the state could have in sending a person to death when he or she cannot duly comprehend the reason for such punishment. But a more practical and urgent matter demands consideration: Is it possible that these crimes could have been prevented through proper treatment for mental illness?

Earlier this month, we spoke with Kathleen Bayes, Executive Director of the Fort Wayne, Indiana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Kathleen, whose husband struggled with mental illness, shared her story about why ending the death penalty is important to her:

"The death penalty is often given in cases of particularly violent or baseless crimes. Such crimes are often committed by people who suffer from serious brain disorders. These are not crimes of choice. When such people are medicated and find out what they have done, they are as horrified as anyone else would be.

This very well could have happened to my husband. Today, after treatment, he is a brilliant, kind, and gentle person, just as he was before he became ill. …

The failure of our society to treat people with mental illness is a disaster. As we have closed our state mental hospitals around the country, jails and prisons have taken over, becoming in effect our country's largest mental institutions. We are criminalizing mental illness, when we should be treating it."

Across the country, state and local groups in the movement to halt executions have joined with mental health advocacy organizations to call for more funding for preventative mental health care, and for the prohibition of the death penalty for persons with serious mental illness.

It’s important to remember that studies in more than a dozen states have all found that the death penalty is inordinately costly – a capital sentence is up to 10 times more expensive than non-capital murder cases. Those resources spent pursuing the death penalty could be redirected to effective crime prevention (like treatment for severe mental illness) and meaningful services for families of murder victims.

The best source of news and information on this issue is the Prevention Not Punishment blog, which aims to educate the public on the relationship between severe mental illness and the death penalty.

*UPDATE*: This post originally stated that last year the Supreme Court had overturned Scott Panetti's death sentence. This was not correct - the Supreme Court blocked his execution, and the case was remanded to a lower court, where Panetti was recently found competent to be executed.

Greg Bloom is the National Constituency Organizer for Equal Justice USA, a national organization working to end the death penalty. Sign up to receive more information about the movement to stop executions!

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Posted at 6:56 AM, May 30, 2008 in Criminal Justice
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