Criminal intent protections should extend to mentally ill

David Bordelon

There are approximately 350,000 inmates with a mental illness, yet only around 35,000 mentally ill patients in psychiatric hospitals. Mentally ill inmates account for anywhere from 5–10 percent of death row inmates. Persecuting those with mental illness is reprehensible, especially considering we protect other groups who cannot fully understand their actions. 

In the 2005 court case Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles, stating that scientific and sociological research shows that juveniles lack maturity and a sense of responsibility when compared to adults. This juvenile underdevelopment diminishes their “mens rea,” or criminal intent. Thus, they should not receive such severe punishment. 

Since that case, protections for juveniles have expanded, specifically in regard to life without parole. First, the court eliminated life without parole sentences for all except homicide cases. Then, it eliminated all life without parole sentences. Now, it has ordered retroactive review of previous life without parole sentences to determine their legitimacy.

Considering the psychological research (moral sentiments notwithstanding), these are positive steps forward. Keeping a child in prison for the rest of their life is nonsensical. Psychology professor Jessica Church-Lang discusses the psychological illegitimacy of such punishments.

“Both psychology and neuroscience research are showing us that the person and the brain change,” Church-Lang said. “So no, I’m not convinced you should be judged throughout life for behaviors performed at one age.”

So, the precedent of recognizing that certain persons have incomplete neurodevelopment and thus diminished criminal intent has been established. However, we still prosecute many that may not be able to neurologically control their actions — 56 percent of state prisoners have some sort of mental health problem. 

Sociology professor William Kelly recognizes a problematic trend in these cases. Such individuals may not be completely capable of understanding their actions. If this is true, “mens rea” should provisionally protect them from prosecution.

“Who with a mental health problem might be able or might not be able to form the requisite intent?” Kelly asked. “There’s no movement in the direction of trying to take ‘mens rea’ seriously.”

Juveniles cannot legally have full criminal intent due to their not fully developed brains. Those with neurodevelopmental disorders that inhibit their intentionality lack these protections. We should be protecting these groups in the same way that we now protect juveniles.

Now, I am not advising that we let every criminal who may have such problems run free, but we should reform the system to help them with their problems. We should clinically diagnose and psychiatrically help the mentally ill. We should treat people who need help as people who need help.

But instead of doing these things, we keep 10 times as many mentally ill persons in prison than in hospitals. We execute the mentally ill when they do not fully understand the gravity of their actions. When people are sick, we do not give them help; we give them an orange jumpsuit and a final meal. 

Bordelon is a philosophy sophomore from Houston. Follow him on Twitter @davbord.