A recent murder has raised a number of broader deeper issues regarding the insanity defense and the danger that those found to be insane pose to society.
Unfortunately there is a societal myth, that has been disproved by sociological empirical studies, that persons with mental illness pose a greater risk to society than those who don’t have a mental illness. Those who have a mental illness are no more likely to commit crime than those who don’t have a mental illness.
However the empirical data is less clear about the links between a small subset of this population, namely those who have a severe mental illness and suffer from psychosis. These concerns have been raised in the context in the recent murder of Jawaid Bhutto, a Pakistani philosophy professor in southeast DC.
The murder suspect in that case, Bobby Jordan, has previously been found not guilty by reason of insanity of another murder ten years previous to the Bhutto murder.
Contrary to public belief, the insanity defense does not act as a get-out-of-jail card. When a defendant is found to be insane, he does not receive the same punishment compared to those who are found guilty of the same offense. Such offenders who are ordinarily found guilty face criminal incarceration in our nation’s prisons for a definite period of time i.e they have a definite release date.
However, for those found to be insane, they are not only sent to a different institution, but they are also sentenced to indefinite confinement in such a psychiatric institution, as occurred in this case where Jordan spent many years in a psychiatric hospital before being released.
Persons found to be insane are confined in a psychiatric hospital until they no longer are mentally ill or until they no longer pose a danger to society. However, such determinations of whether an individual will pose a risk to society in the future are incredibly difficult to make, and as occurred in this case, these dangerousness determinations can prove to be wrong and the released person can go on to commit further dangerous crimes. Cases such as Jordan’s release and committing another seriously violent crime subsequently questions the ability of psychiatrists to accurately predict the dangerousness of an individual.
Despite popular belief, empirical social science studies have shown that insane defendants actually serve longer sentences on average than sane offenders who commit similar crimes. However, it appears that this Jordan case appears to be the exception to this rule, having served less than ten years in a psychiatric hospital before being released.
But generally the longer sentences that mentally ill defendants usually serve also have the effect of contributing to the societal negative stereotype that the individuals with mental illnesses are inherently dangerous. In fact, as stated, persons with mental illnesses are no more likely to commit dangerous crimes than persons without mental illnesses.
Public opinion of the insanity defense has been found to be informed mostly by the media’s coverage of a number of high profile graphic cases. As a result, it is important at times like these to not let the exception to the rule to dominate the discussion and allow the exception to perpetuate the myths that exist. As such, we need to remember that most persons with mental illnesses do not pose a danger to others in society.
We should also be mindful that if we are to believe in the power and ability of persons to change and reform, we must provide meaningful opportunities for insanity acquitters to get released into the community when they no longer pose a danger to others in society.
One way to strike a balance between the need to protect society and also to give opportunities to insanity acquitters to reform and to become reintegrated into society, is to have supervised release. This could involve the individual released checking in regularly with a parole officer and adhering to certain conditions, such as attending counseling sessions, attending an addiction course if relevant, or attending anger management classes. They could also be required to consistently take their medications and undergo drug tests periodically.