While lawyers and judges are the ultimate legal experts, of course, I believe that every citizen should take the time to learn a little about law for several reasons. First, it is important to know your rights, and knowing them can come in handy if anyone ever accuses you of a crime you didn't commit or threatens you legally in another other way. Second, learning about your local, state, and federal laws can help you act as a better citizen. When election time comes around, you can then truly understand ever change in law being proposed by a candidate and whether it benefits society or not. I plan to share posts about law topics explained in plain English on my new blog, so you can come back often to sharpen your legal knowledge!
Families of murder victims and the public often have misconceptions about the insanity defense. The most common misconception is the insanity defense is a tactic used by the accused allowing them to get away with their crimes. Use of the insanity defense is more complex than many people realize.
The Insanity Defense Is Rare
The use of the insanity defense is rare in itself with some states eliminating the option. Most defendants plead guilty or not guilty and the case moves forward. Temporary insanity is another form of the insanity defense, but it continues to be uncommon and can be more difficult to prove or disprove than a general insanity defense. A temporary insanity defense rests on the belief the defendant had a momentary break with reality, which reduces their culpability, but they are currently sane.
A general insanity defense is more likely to stand in court if the defendant has a significant history of serious mental health issues, but this does not guarantee a successful insanity defense. Insanity is based on the premise the defendant was not in touch with reality or experienced forces beyond their control and committed crimes they would not have normally committed were they in their "right mind." People who are truly insane do not consider themselves insane. Whether their crimes are propelled by hallucinations or delusions, they believe in them, and the people who try to convince them otherwise are viewed as insane, enemies, liars, and/or manipulators.
It Is Rarely Successful
Even when the criminal law attorney pleads insanity for their client, this does not automatically mean the defense is accepted. Significant scrutiny by mental health experts is necessary to prove or disprove an insanity defense, but the final decision often rests on the judicial system. There is the belief that insanity can be faked for experts in order to be considered insane. Although it is not impossible to fake insanity, it is extremely difficult.
Pretending to be insane is difficult because it would require maintaining the same lies and/or behaviors throughout numerous treatment sessions with different experts and during court appearances. Someone who is lying to gain an insanity defense will eventually contradict themselves. In some cases, an insanity defense may take years to reach trial, especially if the defendant is often labeled as "unable to stand trial," which is a separate legal issue. Even defendants with serious mental health issues are more likely to be found in mainstream prisons than facilities for the criminally insane.
Difference In Confinement
Once a defendant is declared insane, this does not end the case. Some people erroneously believe defendants sentenced to a mental health facility are simply released once they appear to be stabilized. The length of confinement to a correctional institution is no different or sometimes less than when a defendant is sentenced to a mental institution. If the defendant would normally receive a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, the same sentence is imposed, just in a different location.
In many cases, confinement to a mental health setting for the criminally insane is more akin to solitary confinement in prison. Due to the unpredictability to those committing dangerous crimes, it is often much safer for corrections officers, mental health personnel, and other inmates to keep these offenders isolated. Additionally, a truly insane defendant may not be fit to leave the mental institution even after they have served their sentence. For those who are eligible for parole, they may be less likely to be granted parole because of additional safety concerns for the public.
The public can rest assured that an insanity defense is not a method of avoiding punishment for crimes. Although there are significant differences between confinement for those who are declared criminally insane and those who are not, both situations are similar in their length and degree of punishment.