Norval Morris and Stephen Morse offer two contrasting views as to the legitimacy of the insanity defense in criminal cases. Morris advocates reducing the weight of the insanity defense from one of special exemption to one of “diminished responsibility”. Morse offers a defense of the insanity defense as it currently stands.
The point on which the issue turns is choice. Do the mentally ill have the capacity to understand the law and to intentionally break it? Or does mental illness preclude the possibility of responsibility for one’s actions?Morris argues that freedom of choice exists on a continuum, and that to treat the mentally ill in black and white terms with regard to responsibility is folly. He goes on to argue that other mitigating circumstances, such as socioeconomic status, seem to have a greater causal link to criminal behavior. He concludes that mental illness should be a mitigating circumstance that can be used in reduced sentencing, rather than a special exemption from the law. Morse argues using the basic moral principles called upon to justify the insanity defense, namely a lack of cognitive capacity, which precludes the possibility of responsibility.While Morris raises some good objections to the insanity defense, I am still more inclined to agree with Morse. I agree that in some circumstances, let’s say a patient with a mood disorder, it makes sense to treat the mentally ill as having diminished responsibility.
However, to say freedom of choice exists only on some continuum and that no one is ever completely irresponsible for his or her actions seems to me to deny such cases as someone experiencing a fugue state or complete psychotic break. An objection that could be raised (and which Morris does raise) to my viewpoint is one of procedure.Cases in which a criminal act was committed by someone who was not at all responsible for their actions are rare, and opening the door to insanity as a special defense inevitably results in other criminal offenders going unpunished by pretending to mental illness. While this is a legitimate objection that deserves to be addressed, it must be treated as a problem of application rather than one of principle. In any case, I would much prefer to live under a legal system in which some criminals go free than one in which some people who lack the cognitive capacity to commit a crime are punished as if they did.
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