Sunday, January 18, 2004

In defense of proposed 'guilty but insane' law

By Robin N. Piper
Guest columnist

While acknowledging there was a perceived problem earlier in the 1990s with Ohio's "not guilty by reason of insanity" plea, psychiatrist Douglas Mossman and attorney/psychologist Solomon Fulero recently opined to the Enquirer that we should not seek improvement in the current system ("Ohio insanity bill an insane proposal," Jan. 2). Efforts at reform were described as "mean-spirited" and "dangerous." Nothing could be further from the truth.

We all know that psychiatric care is not an exact science. In any bizarre or gruesome murder, the defense can hire an "expert" to say the offender is not accountable by virtue of temporary insanity. Even sincere caregivers can disagree on an offender's diagnosis, course and duration of treatment.

Regarding one extremely violent murder, a renowned psychiatrist told me that even after the offender had been stabilized with medicine, he could not predict whether the offender would have a second episode. The offender was recommended for release after being in a hospital for less than six years.

With reform, serious, violent offenders could no longer claim temporary insanity, be put on medicine and released into society after a few years on hospital grounds. It's happening more often - not myth, but fact.

Ohio House Bill 357 would change how we respond to those who are guilty but claim to have been insane at the time of their offense. Those guilty but insane would still get treatment in a hospital for their mental problems, but could subsequently be incarcerated as a consequence of their violent criminal conduct.

The offender's initial mental state, subsequent treatment and overall condition are factors the court could consider in determining the extent of any incarceration.

House Bill 357 would blend, or mix, treatment with subsequent incarceration (or probation for lesser offenses). We have an obligation to treat those who suffer temporary insanity, but we also have an obligation to protect society from the mentally unbalanced and punish them for their deeds. A mixture of both treatment and punishment may aid us in modifying the offender's future behavior while delivering a more "just" accountability. Monitoring people after they have been "cured" and while incarcerated would be prudent in some circumstances.

It is simply untrue that those found not guilty by reason of insanity spend as much time in psychiatric hospitals as regular offenders spend in prison. It is equally false that "experts" would still be able to testify when "insanity" is not the issue, freeing criminals. To the contrary, we should welcome the revision of a legal system susceptible to misuse, give the criminally insane treatment, and require consequence for actions. If we are truly seeking justice, the claimed "mental state" of a defendant (as legally bantered by experts) should not be the only point of focus. We should also consider what a person has done.

House Bill 357 is not perfect in its initial form. Future discussions need to hammer out reform that determines what is "just" with a more balanced approach. Closing our eyes and clicking our heels won't have us waking up in a better place.


Robin N. Piper is Butler County's prosecutor.

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