In reading about the murder of four police officers near Tacoma, we were most struck by the prime suspect’s obvious paranoid schizophrenia—a disease that seems to have been wholly untreated, in part because his family members were afraid of staging any sort of medical intervention:
As part of the child-rape investigation, the sheriff’s office interviewed Clemmons’ sister in May. She told them that “Maurice is not in his right mind and did not know how he could react when contacted by Law Enforcement,” a sheriff’s report says.
“She stated that he was saying that the secret service was coming to get him because he had written a letter to the President. She stated his behavior has become unpredictable and erratic. She suspects he is having a mental breakdown,” the report says.
Deputies also interviewed other family members. They reported that Clemmons had been saying he could fly and that he expected President Obama to visit to “confirm that he is Messiah in the flesh.”
This got us thinking about how a man like Clemmons would have been handled by the law in an earlier age—specifically the days when “criminal insanity” was considered a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis, and one that was used to shift people out of the legal system and into the medical establishment. This was not done in order to offer treatment, but rather to shunt ostensibly incorrigible “lunatics” into a system from which there was no formal release procedure. It was essentially an extralegal workaround, creating a parallel prison system exempt from standard oversight.
At times like these, it’s easy to see the downside of abandoning this system—the criminal justice system isn’t necessarily equipped to deal with felons of Mr. Clemmons’ mentally disturbed ilk. But in briefly thumbing through the history of criminal insanity this morning, we quickly came to realize why this “solution” was abandoned long ago: it’s because communities decided to take advantage of the asylums-cum-prisons as dumping grounds for those who truly needed help, not permanent incarceration. This account from Canada’s brief experiment with criminal insanity is instructive:
According to Lichtfield, the original intent of the law for admission to the lunatic criminal asylum was undermined by the public through the criminalization of ordinary cases of insanity. This criminalization was achieved by “tacking” onto an ordinary lunatic an official charge of assault, or being dangerous to the public. In this way, the ordinary lunatic was labeled an insane offender and “committed to gaol as the preliminary step to a transfer to the Criminal Lunatic Asylum.” Lichtfield argued that this legal manipulation helped to relieve problems of accomodation for the insane of the province, and enabled municipalities close to Rockwood to avoid spending large sums of money transporting insane persons to the more distant Toronto Provincial Asylum. Finally, this rediagnosis of the ordinary insane allowed their families in the near vicinity of Rockwood to keep “their relatives as near to them, and in an asylum as covenient of access for them” as possible.
And so the concept of “criminal insanity” was abandoned because it opened the door for so many horrendous abuses by ordinary citizens intent on (for lack of a better phrase) “mental cleansing” of their communities. The cost, alas, has been that offender such as Mr. Clemmons are not so easily taken off the streets when they show signs of psychiatric distress. And thus lies the great challenge for lawmakers in coming up with a better way of balancing the rights of mentally ill individuals with the right of society to live without fear—or, at the very least, with as least fear as possible.
(Image via Philip V. Allingham)