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The Mental Illness Excuse
When Raymond Alves left prison at the end of his seven-year sentence last March he triggered a nationwide hunt. Because Alves is a convicted sex offender, New Jerseys recently enacted Sexually Violent Predator statute required prison officials to notify prosecutors 30 days prior to his release. The statute provides for the indefinite civil commitment of convicted sex offenders following the completion of their criminal sentences and the 30-day notice enables prosecutors to complete commitment proceedings while the offender is incarcerated.
As a result of what the New York Times called a bureaucratic blunder, New Jersey prison officials failed to notify local authorities until the day after they had released Alves. The bureaucratic blunder was, in fact, the professional judgment of two psychiatrists appointed by Governor Whitman and responsible for evaluating Alves, who believed that Alves did not pose a danger to the community. Federal and state law enforcement disagreed with their assessment and issued warrants for his arrest. Nineteen states have passed Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) statutes, which permit the state to indefinitely confine offenders who suffer from a mental abnormality even after they have served their full criminal sentence. The laws depiction of sex offenders as mentally ill has gained political popularity as lawmakers have learned that they can appear to effectively manage the threat of violence by treating it as a medical one.
Predator laws are also popular with politicians because, by defining persons with sexually deviant predilections as mentally ill, they enable lawmakers and courts to deflect responsibility for repeat sex offenders onto medical experts. Thus, responsibility for Alves ultimately came to rest with the doctors who evaluated him. New Jersey Commissioner of Corrections, Jack Terhune, fired the psychiatrists within two days of Alvess release. These statutes effectively make doctors agents of the state, and as such, they make decisions dictated by political necessity, even when medically indefensible.
While the medical approach to violent crime is politically successful, it is an ominous development from the perspective of civil rights and mental health advocates. The stated intent behind these statutes is to treat, not punish, a small group of sex offenders, particularly child predators, who suffer from an illness that makes it almost certain that they will re-offend. There is nothing in the statute, however, that can serve to differentiate sex offenders whose offense was a result of mental illness from those who were simply, and culpably, bad.
Most states have adopted statutes like New Jerseys that defined mental abnormality as a condition predisposing one to commit acts of sexual violence. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), which opposes these laws, has found that there is no way for medical professionals to apply this term in a fair and consistent way. The APA explains that if deviant acts alone establish evidence that a person has an impaired ability to conform her conduct in order to avoid violating the law, then all criminals are mentally ill. With nothing in the statute to differentiate those offenders for whom commitment is or is not appropriate, the ultimate decision made by prosecutors, doctors, judges, and juries is arbitrary. The only requirements, abnormality and dangerousness, serve as invitations for bias and not as calls for medical competence.
Although initially intended to enable the state to commit recidivist child predators whose mental disease did not render them incompetent and therefore precluded them from commitment under ordinary civil commitment laws, the vague wording of these statutes has enabled prosecutors in practice to indefinitely commit new offenders without even going to trial. Many states segregate predators from persons committed through the ordinary process by precluding placement of predators in state mental facilities and instead placing sexual offender wards in the same maximum security prisons that housed them during their term of criminal incarceration. As predators, however, they are required to wear distinctive dress and lose many of the privileges and opportunities, such as employment and classes that they had while serving their criminal sentence.
The ostensible therapeutic, non- punitive purpose of these statutes enables the state to bypass the Constitutions double jeopardy bar and the stricter procedural standards of criminal law. The Supreme Court has recognized that civil commitment is a profound deprivation of liberty comparative to criminal incarceration, but the Court has upheld the constitutionality of affording diminished procedural rights to mentally ill persons because of the states interest in treating mentally ill persons and the presumed independence of the professionals who provide that treatment.
The states benevolent purpose, however, does not give it unlimited power. The Court has interpreted the constitutional prohibition against arbitrary detention as requiring the state to prove that the person is not only dangerous but also mentally ill. The mental illness requirement has traditionally functioned to narrow the class of persons subject to this type of civil confinement to those persons who are incompetent and lack the capacity to rationally direct their behavior. In effect, the requirement functions to ensure that the state primarily exercises social control through the criminal justice institution. Absent mental illness, the Constitution requires that the state exercise control over dangerous persons through the institution of criminal justice and subject to that institutions stricter requirements of due process.
In its 1997 decision in Kansas v. Hendricks to uphold the Kansas SVP law against constitutional challenges, the Court signaled that the primacy of the criminal justice system as the principal institution of social control is yielding. While the Court recognized that mental illness is a predicate to involuntary commitment, it accepted the Acts sweeping definition of mental illness. The freedom of states to define mental illness means that the mental illness requirement no longer functions to preserve individual liberty as a limit on the states pursuit of collective welfare. So-called chemical castration statutes demonstrate the kind of abuse of medicine this freedom allows. Chemical castration statutes, now the law in several states, make castration, in the form of taking drugs that eliminate the sex drive, a condition of parole, without any finding of medical appropriateness.
Legislators are using the mental illness excuse to obtain what is ultimately an unjustifiable extension of power. They are building on a long tradition in our society of using mental illness to excuse gross violations of liberty. Though the popular media typically depicts criminal defendants asserting the mental illness excuse to avoid responsibility for their crimes, it is less often that a defendant uses the excuse of mental illness than the state. For example, in Buck v. Bell, a 1927 Supreme Court case which upheld the constitutionality of a Kentucky law requiring sterilization of third generation mentally retarded persons, Justice Holmes wrote: It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. He concluded that, Three generations of imbeciles are enough. As a result of this judgment, Kentucky was able to sterilize Carrie Buck, who along with her mother and her daughter were found to be mentally retarded. It turned out, however, that Carrie Bucks daughter was not retarded. She was an unusually quiet infant. We should recognize with shame our tradition of using the excuse of mental illness to compromise our ideals of ordered liberty for persons we fear, like Raymond Alves, or do not want to understand, like Carrie Buck. Z