Is Mental Illness a Valid Defense Against Criminal Charges?

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Just as mental health plays a role in every part of our lives, so can it play a role when crimes are committed. The federal government estimates that up to 16% of incarcerated people have struggled with their mental health. The stigma against mental illness remains harsh even today—notable from horror movies and thrillers featuring allegedly mentally ill antagonists to even colloquial expressions like “what are you, crazy?”

Yet far from their typical portrayal as menaces to society, federal agencies like SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) recognize that people with severe mental illness are on average 11 times more likely than those who are mentally well to be victims of violent crimes. It is important to keep this in mind when we read, for instance, that mentally ill prisoners have a higher recidivism rate. As in the case of other marginalized groups, limited opportunities due to societal exclusion and discrimination can lead to more mentally ill individuals being unable to find stable and safe work. We can also acknowledge that only one-third to one-quarter of prisoners with mental illness receive treatment, and given the conditions of imprisonment, sometimes the mental health services offered in jail are woefully lacking compared to what one might find in an expensive mental health hospital.

This article will analyze how people with mental illnesses are treated by the New Jersey justice system, giving you an overview of problems and available resources. Be sure to please get in contact with a Mercer County criminal defense lawyer if you or a loved one have been charged with a crime and are mentally ill. This is a significantly vulnerable moment for you, and we want to be at your side to support you with our legal knowledge and experience.

Why Are Mentally Ill People Charged with Crimes?

There are multiple reasons someone with a mental illness might end up with a criminal record, but the lack of effective, affordable mental health care ranks highly among the list of causes. For instance, individuals with OCD require specialized therapy in the form of Exposure and Response Prevention or Inference-based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Finding a provider who works remotely close to where one lives is a big enough hurdle, to say nothing of often prohibitively high session fees not covered by insurance.

Understanding this helps us appreciate the greater difficulties mentally ill individuals as a vulnerable population group face. It is entirely possible, for instance, that someone with schizophrenia might suffer from a delusion that a passerby represented an immediate threat to their wellbeing, and consequently attacked them in (perceived) self-defense.

From an outsider’s perspective, one might see this as a dangerously ill individual causing harm to someone perceived to be mentally well. But if we instead consider that up to 20% of homeless individuals have schizophrenia, we begin to appreciate how many people with schizophrenia are operating from a situation of extreme poverty and difficulty meeting basic needs, before they can even confront the difficulty of getting appropriate treatment.

Is Mental Illness Ever a Valid Defense for a Crime?

The legal system has historically been deeply damaging to mentally ill people. Nevertheless, there are resources you may have access to. Your lawyer may be able to negotiate a lesser sentence or even probation, if they can prove by clear and documented evidence that you have a mental illness that affected your actions. The purpose of the justice system is, after all, to punish individuals who knowingly and intentionally break the law, not to persecute those with hallucinogenic or psychotic breaks.

Similarly, mental illness might prevent someone from having the specific intent required by the law. In cases like assault, the defendant must intend to commit the crime and intend to cause the injuries the victim suffered. Someone with a mental illness might not know crucial facts. They might not be able to tell that an item they found in a store, for example, belonged to another person. Sincerely believing it to be theirs, they do not have intent to commit theft. Your lawyer may be able to use this argument to defend you.

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