Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A useful text -- "Criminal Mental Health and Disability Law, Evidence and Testimony"

When we think about crime and criminals, we all have different thought balloons, usually based on our fears or our experiences. If I ran a retail store, I think I would be focused on shop lifting, and maybe employee pilferage or embezzlement. I rarely think about bank robbery because my deposits are insured.

I frequently have short worries -- that I check -- about kidnapping when my 5th grade daughter is out walking our dog by herself. I fear robbery at night walking to or from Metro rail stations in Washington, DC or certain suburbs.

If I were a cop, I think I would fear violence whenever I responded to a domestic violence call, or violence whenever I stopped someone for speeding, running a red light or some other reason.

Many of us imagine that thieves steal because they need the money, or they justify their stealing in some way. Bernie Madoff did not need the money. Was he mentally ill? Was his greed a form of mental illness?

A person who kidnaps a child for ransom is obviously depraved in some sense. Who would be so thoughtless that they would terrorize a child and his or her family? Are they mentally ill in some way? Sure -- but in what way?

A person who kidnaps a child for other purposes or sexually assaults another is certainly "crazy" in some sense. But does this vitiate their liability for the crime? Not in most cases. How do we distinguish the crazy from the insane who are not criminally responsible?

Were the teenage killers at Columbine High School crazy? Sure. But were they insane? When John Hinckley tried to kill President Reagan to gain the love of actress Jodie Foster, the jury concluded that he was mentally ill to the point that he could not be found guilty. That verdict resulted in many changes in the "insanity defense" and how the law addresses mental illness.

In fact, many people who the police deal with are mentally ill in one or more of a variety of ways. How the police, courts and correctional system should deal with this variety of mentally ill persons, as provided by the law, is the subject of the new book from the American Bar Association, Criminal Mental Health and Disability Law, Evidence and Testimony: A Comprehensive Reference Manual for Lawyers, Judges, and Criminal Justice Professionals, by John Parry, J.D.

Parry has done an outstanding job bringing together and organizing the vast volume of material in this subject. Every subject in this intellectually rich field of law is covered in a clear style.

Think about the challenges of the following complex questions and issues and you can appreciate the accomplishment of the author in assembling and explaining this material.

Is a person competent to stand trial? What is the law? What is the evidence and who presents it? If a person is incompetent, how are they committed? If they regain their competence, then what happens?

What about the case in which the person is competent to stand trial, but argues he was legally insane at the time of the offense?

How do we address the question of "dangerousness?"

What are the standards for managing institutions that house the criminally mentally ill? What are the Constitutional standards, the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and common law civil liability?

Of all the persons who encounter and observe the defendant, what are the standards regarding how they can testify, and what privileges barring their testimony apply?

What are the different kinds of diagnoses and assessments of mental illness that are presented to courts?

If you are curious about these matters, after you get frustrated with Google and Wikipedia, this is the place to turn.

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