Defending Insanity: an in-Depth Look at the Insanity Defense

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The insanity defense was established so people who commit crimes due to severe mental illness are not responsible for their crimes. Throughout the years the insanity defense has evolved along with the court system but are the mentally ill being treated fairly in the court of law? Changes in the insanity defense laws and the abolishment of the defense is some states have made proving not guilty by reason of insanity nearly impossible. The tougher laws on the insanity defense have put people who should be in psychiatric institutions in prison where their illness are only intensifying and getting worse. Regulating the insanity defense into a standard shared by all states would allow the mentally ill to defend themselves fairly in court and prevent others from taking advantage of the system.

To understand the insanity defense one must first understand the different types of mental illnesses and how they affect the way people act. According to The American Heritage Medical Dictionary, mental illness can be defined as, “Any of various psychiatric conditions, usually characterized by impairment of an individual's normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by physiological or psychosocial factors (The Free Dictionary by Farlax, 2007, para. 1).” Some mental illnesses are more sever than others and not all mental illnesses can be blamed for a person committing a crime. Figure 1 illustrates the most common mental illnesses found in prison inmates and their symptoms.

Figure 1
Common mental disorders and the symptoms they cause
Disorder Name


Delusions, hallucinations, paranoid behavior, angry outburst, lack of emotion.

Bipolar Disorders
Emotional highs (mania), crippling lows (depression), impulsive behavior, severe psychosis episodes that cause delusions and hallucinations.

Feeling down, suicidal thoughts, loss of interest in everyday activities, feelings of impending doom.

Personality Disorders
Impulsive behavior, strong emotions that frequently change, loss of control over emotions, sudden bursts of rage, suicidal thoughts and depression.

Note. Received from
Copyright 2008 Revolution Health Group LLC

All the above mental illnesses, if left untreated, may cause a person to act violently. With proper treatment people suffering from mental illnesses can be productive members of society. People with mental illnesses that have the potential to be rehabilitated should have that opportunity instead of suffering in prison. Without such an opportunity, there is a likelihood that person will return to or remain in prison.

Throughout history the court systems have taken special consideration for crimes committed by the mentally insane. The insanity defense can be traced back all the way back to the fourteenth century and has evolved with the court systems over the years. One of the first rules for determining if a criminal should be held accountable for ones crimes is the M’Naughten rule or Wild Beast rule. This rule states that “A defendant should not be held responsible for his actions if he could tell that his actions were wrong at the time he committed them (PBS, 2005, para. 1).” This rule came about after a Scottish wood cutter was acquitted of attempted assignation of England’s Prime Minister and murder in 1843 due to mental illness (PBS, 2005). Variations of the M’naughten rule are still used in some states today (PBS, 2005). While the M’Naughten rule is a good basis for determining criminal responsibility there is no consideration for crimes committed out of irresistible impulse. Certain mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bi polar disorders cause people to commit crimes out of self control or impulse.

“In 1962 The American Law Institute or A.L.I founded a standard that took different mental disorders into account, this standard stated, ‘A defendant will not be held criminally responsible...
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