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The Insanity Plea: History and Implications

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The Insanity Plea: History and Implications
Since the beginning of Anglo-American law, the proposition that some criminal defendants should not be found guilty of their crimes by reason of mental instability has been a well established judicial action throughout centuries of jurisdiction. Even though the original intent of this practice was to soften the harsh consequences of capital punishments, the psychiatric state of persons convicted of crimes quickly became an important mechanism of social regulation. The justification for this mechanism lies in the assumption that the criminally insane are irrational and therefore non-responsible of their crimes. As we examine the history and implications of the insanity plea, a few questions should be kept in mind---1. How can we be sure that a person is indeed insane (he could be putting on a show) and 2. Should a mentally ill person be punished at all.
Today in our legal system, there are numerous amounts of defense tactics that are designed to protect the rights of the accused, and to further the process of justice. However, in many cases this augmentation of justice has been taken too far, and as a result, pleas such as “Temporary insanity” are born. Indeed, the insanity defense in itself has been stretched nearly to its breaking point. In this analytical examination of the insanity plea, I will illustrate how, in some cases the insanity plea is necessary while in other cases, the use of the insanity plea is illegitimate.
The history of the insanity defense goes back as far as government. As Thomas Maeder stated in his book Crime and Madness: The Origins and Evolutions of the Insanity Defense, surprisingly enough, “Throughout most of history there have been no specific criteria for exculpatory insanity”(3). In ancient Hebrew times, as Maeder notes, the law simply states that idiots, lunatics, and children below a given age are not to be held criminally responsible (3).
In fact, in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, nothing has survived to reveal any



Cited: Godine, Boston, 1984 Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 1985 Witkin, Gordon

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