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Fred's Views

Racial Insanity

I recently viewed an episode of Law and Order where a black man was shot and killed because he grabbed a taxi from a white bigot. The bigoted murderer, when accused of the crime, owned up to it. He believed he was justified as a means of protecting himself from racial minorities.

His defense attorney attempted to use the insanity plea, claiming that racial hatred is a form of mental illness. Since it is not recognized as a mental illness, the district attorney was able to secure a guilty verdict. Another criminal was forced to accept the consequences of his actions and justice was served.

End of story.

In this particular episode, it was clear that the bigot was fully aware of what he was doing and knew the consequences of such action. By all standards, he was not insane. But the episode opens up a kind of Pandora's box: Could racial hatred be a mental disease? Should it be treated like other forms of mental disturbance? The consequences of doing so might be successful insanity pleas on the behalf of other bigots who persecute or murder innocent minority members. There is already too great a trend in our society to justify or at least explain criminal behavior as a result of one mental disorder or another. This is a dangerous trend that has, as its logical conclusion, the inability of society to hold anyone accountable for his or her actions. That would certainly be anarchy. Yet, how can we say they are completely sane? Isn't murder, by definition, an insane act? As always, there are far too many questions and few good answers. The answer must be, I believe, to disregard any mental problem the defendant may have. The criteria is "Could the defendant, at the time of the crime, distinguish between right and wrong; between acceptable actions and unacceptable actions." If the defendant knew what he or she was doing was wrong, then he or she is accountable. The problem is to get into his or her mind and find out how rational they were.

There is a real life situation in Texas. A mother is on trial for drowning her children. An insane act to be sure, but was she aware of right and wrong? Was she accountable for her actions? Our gut response is probably that "Any mother who could do that to her kids doesn't deserve to live." But it could equally be "No mother in her right mind could do such a thing to her children." Both are valid points of view. But how can justice best be served? In this case, the mother was apparently under the care of a psychiatrist. It seems that the psychiatrist erred in his diagnosis, but it would appear that she was certainly not in good mental health. Was she so insane as to not be accountable? That is the question.

This is a very serious issue. On the one hand, there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that many people were at least temporarily insane at the time they committed their crimes. Perhaps punishment is not the answer for these people. Perhaps they do, indeed, need treatment. On the other hand, if people are not held accountable and punished for their actions, what message does that send to would-be criminals? Plead insane and get off? Unfortunately, while I seriously wonder how effective punishment is as a deterrent to crime, it is one of the few sticks we can wield.

From a pragmatic, practical viewpoint, we need to hold people responsible for their actions, and we need to punish the guilty as a deterrent to others. (I don't think anyone would seriously consider that punishment does any good for the guilty, and it is sparse comfort to the victim or the victim's family.) But, it's all we have. From another viewpoint, punishment probably does more harm than good. For some, punishment is recognition, an acknowledgment that they exist and that they make a difference. Not a positive difference to be sure, but still a difference. Prison life isn't pleasant, but for some it may be preferable to the unknown and to the cold and hostile world of freedom. These people need help, but we can't realistically help more than a few. There are people who seem to be totally evil. But is that not a sure sign that they are insane? Probably incurably insane, but insane. So what should we do?

I am pragmatic enough to accept that most people who commit crimes, particularly if it is a violent crime and if he/she is a repeat offender, should be incarcerated. I would like to see such people receive training, if necessary, and help, if possible. I would like to see them gainfully employed and required, where feasible, to make restitution. I think every prisoner should be required to enter a "half-way" house and engage in community service while they are guided back into normal society. Only after they have secured a suitable job and demonstrated an ability to fit in with society and keep that job should they be allowed to leave the half-way house and the supervision of an officer of the courts. But that isn't practical. To do less, though, is, I fear, little short of a guarantee that the person will return to his/her old ways and once again become a burden on society.

But are there some that deserve better? What about the woman who may have simply forgotten all about her infant daughter and left her in a hot car all day long? Will punishing her accomplish anything at all? Assuming, for the moment, that her claim is true, she will be punishing herself for the rest of her life. I really don't think that not imprisoning her will be a negative deterrent to anyone, but I could be wrong. It's extremely hard to believe that someone could forget their child for a whole day, but not impossible. A little compassion might seem in order here. And what about battered spouses who, in desperation, take the life of their spouse? Since the law is effectively "hog-tied" in such cases, I don't see how we can possibly blame someone who is literally forced to "take the law into their own hands". Our courts and our police officers should be empowered to act when there is any hint of violence or coercion - with or without a valid complaint. Perhaps an accused batterer should be required to take therapy and wear an ankle bracelet that keeps track of his/her whereabouts. If the accused comes within a few blocks of the spouse, the police should be empowered to intercede before violence has a chance to break out.

Obviously, there are no simple solutions. What we need is a judicial system that is empowered to act according to the "spirit" of a law and not just the "letter of the law". We need our justice system to treat everyone as individuals and assess what is most appropriate and beneficial for all concerned. It may well be incarceration, but it may not.

I have not mentioned the death penalty. I am opposed on moral, ethical and practical grounds to capital punishment. I don't believe that I, as a member of society, have the right to take a life if there is any reasonable alternative. After all, we all know that DNA testing has turned up a number of people who were wrongfully convicted. That situation is always a possibility. On the other hand, I am not necessarily opposed to capital punishment for the most serious crimes where the convicted prisoner requests it. I think such a request must be carefully considered, but not necessarily denied. Ironically, it could be argued that only an insane person would request death, but so be it.

As a society, we have an extremely difficult situation to deal with here. We must hold those responsible of unacceptable behavior accountable for their actions, but, on the other hand, we must also determine that whatever "punishment" we demand is not only fair but is in the best long-term interests of all concerned. Locking someone up and "throwing away the key" might be acceptable under certain conditions, but sending a convict back out on the streets totally unprepared and unable to fend for him/herself is not - ever.

Copyright © 2001 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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