February 07, 2006

The Death Penalty and Mental Illness

A new report issued by Amnesty International found that at least 10% of the first 1,000 people executed in the United States since 1977 were severely mentall ill. The report noted that the National Association of Mental Health estimates that between five and 10% of the 3,400 people on death row around the country are mentally ill. Amnesty said that states are failing to address serious mental health issues before crimes occur.

In a review of available psychiatric examinations, medical records, and documented cases of extreme behavior, Amnesty discovered at least 100 cases of executed prisoners during the past three decades with evidence of severe mental illness. In many other cases, psychiatric evaluations had not been conducted, making it difficult to determine the mental state. Amnesty stated that the procedures in place to identify and assist those with mental illness before a crime occurs are inadequate and should be improved. As an example, the group noted that Texas spends an average of $2.3 million trying each death penalty case, but the state's per capita spending on mental health ranks 49th out of the 50 states.

"The arguments in favor of the 'deterrent' value of the death penalty ring especially hollow with regard to seriously mentall ill offenders. Instead of waiting until another person dies, governments must fix the mental health system now and strengthen the safety net so that those who need treatment the most receive it before the involvement of the criminal justice system," said Dr. William F. Shultz, Amnesty International's Executive Director. Susan Lee, Amnesty International's American programs director, added, "Prejudice and ignorance give rise to fear and for many people it is easier to sentence a mentally ill person to death than to find genuine treatment solutions."

Source Report (click to see full report): The Execution of Mentally Ill Offenders, Amnesty International, January 31, 2006).


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