Justice and mental illness

The death penalty is as random and capricious as the violence it seeks to punish. No matter. In Washington, public sentiment remains pro-execution, and the political class barometers accordingly.

Death-penalty limits have tracked with evolving norms. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Roper v. Simmons that it was unconstitutional for states to impose the death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18. The majority justices embraced an “evolving standards of decency” test established in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia, which determined that executing the mentally retarded violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The latter decision on mental capacity was brought into focus Monday when Florida executed John Ferguson, a mentally ill killer (with the emphasis on capacity and not equating retardation with mental illness.) The National Association for Mental Illness filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing on the Florida Supreme Court and circuit court’s poor understanding of the science of mental illness. Ferguson, who had schizophrenia, was deemed fit by the circuit court because he understood the details of his trial and conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the stay of execution.

“The tragedies of John Ferguson’s original crimes are compounded now by an additional tragedy — one in which the legal system failed to recognize established medical understanding of serious mental illness,” said Ron Honberg, NAMI’s national director of policy and legal affairs.

The amicus brief is instructive because it illustrates the level of medical ignorance or “established medical understanding” in legal land. It’s an ignorance that extends to most of us.

“Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that courts outside of Florida have a significantly better understanding of psychotic disorders,” the brief reads. “The distinction between ‘awareness’ and ‘understanding’…does little good if state courts continue to conflate the two, and if they rely instead on an intuitive, unscientific conception of mental illness.”

When mental illness and criminal justice intersect, a lack of professional knowledge can be deadly. This circles back to Snohomish County, where the county jail still doesn’t have the capacity to monitor medications or guarantee patient stability. That needs to change. A proactive approach requires better tools and a more responsive system.

With its new mental health court, the county has begun to align justice and mental health. Slowly, the “evolving standards of decency” become whole.

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