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Policy Statements- Mental Defenses

California Attorneys for Criminal Justice believes that a person accused of crime has a constitutional and moral right to defend himself by asserting an insanity defense or a diminished mental state as a defense to the crime he is accused of committing. CACJ opposes efforts to restrict the ability of the defendant to interpose these defenses at this trial.

Our justice system has always made criminal punishment contingent on two findings: an illegal act and an evil intent. Persons who may perform an otherwise unlawful act, but who do so without evil intent, are not deemed criminal. For example, one who bumps into a person on a sidewalk is guilty of a battery only if he intended to do it and not if it were an accident. A person's abnormal mental status is sometimes important in determining whether he or she had the criminal intent to commit an offense. A defendant who has a major mental illness may have a defense of "insanity" to criminal charges. This defense, if successful-a rarity-results in the defendant being sent to a hospital rather than a prison. This procedure is based on the fundamental belief that we should punish the bad but treat the mad.

The insanity defense is so difficult to prove that fewer than 200 persons per year are committed under the statutory procedure (out of about 75,000 felony dispositions per year). This is unfortunate because of the 65,000 prisoners currently serving their time in the California Department of Corrections, a significant percentage suffer from a mental disease or defect and are receiving no treatment. This is regrettable because such persons can hardly be expected to become rehabilitated when they suffer from untreated mental diseases and are crammed in extremely overcrowded prisons.

The insanity defense is an important societal control mechanism. Under California's determinate sentence law, a mentally-ill person sent to prison usually receives no treatment and is released when his sentence ends no matter how ill he may be. If sent to a hospital, the State can petition to keep the person in treatment even after the underlying sentence ends. In this way, the dangerous offender can be controlled until his release into the community is safe.

The insanity defense is a necessary moral component of our justice system. It prohibits the execution or criminal punishment of the legally insane. All civilized societies differentiate between the sane criminal offender and the mentally defective one. Punishment makes little sense and is cruel where one does not comprehend the wrongfulness of his conduct.

Mental illness evidence is also available for use during the guilt phase of a trial. Recently, the Legislature has restricted the ability of psychiatrists to testify at the guilt phase of the trial by not allowing such experts to testify as to whether the defendant did or did not have the mental status required by the charged offense. (For example, did he have the intent to rob?) It has also limited the use of these experts' evidence by prohibiting opinions on the "capacity" of the defendant to form the intent to commit the crime. CACJ opposes these restrictions because they limit the defendant's ability to establish his or her true level of culpability (if any). Relevant evidence pertaining to the mental state of the defendant should not be excluded at trial.

A defendant's mental state is relevant evidence where a defendant is on trial for his life or liberty. It is an essential part of any humane justice system which takes into account the intent as well as the act of the citizen accused.

--drafted by Charles M. Sevilla

FORUM, NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 1987, VOLUME 14, NO. 6

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