The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Mental Health Policy Neglects, Endangers Public, Patients

by Brendan Coyne

Feb. 1, 2006 – In a report on the United States’ criminal-justice and mental-healthcare systems, a leading international human rights group yesterday outlined the cases of 100 mentally ill convicted murderers executed by state governments since the death penalty was reintroduced nearly 30 years ago. The 189-page Amnesty International study culminates in a call for the country to seriously assess how it treats people with mental impairments.

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Among the states, Texas is the top serial executioner of mentally impaired people, killing at least 24 retarded or mentally ill people since 1977, according to the Amnesty International report. At nine, Oklahoma killed the next largest number of people with mental illnesses in the cases outlined by Amnesty.

In all, 22 states have put mentally impaired people to death – many of them from abusive and violent backgrounds, including war veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD).

Just under three years ago, on the very same day the invasion of Iraq began, the federal government put Louis Jones, a veteran of the first Gulf War, to death for kidnapping, raping and murdering a 19-year-old female fellow soldier. At the trial, a number of experts testified that Jones suffered from various mental problems, including PSTD.

"The execution of those suffering from severe mental illnesses is a cruel and inhumane practice, which has been overlooked for far too long," Amnesty Americas Program Director Susan Lee said in a statement released along with the report. "Prejudice and ignorance give rise to fear and for many people it is easier to sentence a mentally ill offender to death rather than to find genuine treatment solutions."

Citing estimates by the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) that 5 to 10 percent of the current death-row population is mentally impaired, Amnesty called on the US to re-examine the "systemic problems confronting the mentally ill," including a failed public mental health policy that allows potentially dangerous people to harm themselves and others.

In recommendations issued last spring, NMHA called on criminal-justice officials to follow nine principals to ensure mentally ill prisoners are treated properly, including mandatory inmate mental health screening on intake, 24-hour mental health services for inmates and proper training for prison and jail staffers who will inevitably deal with mentally ill prisoners.

The group also advocates for increased use of carefully regulated "mental health courts" to deal with such individuals outside of the criminal justice system, but cautions that they could "assume a coercive role, both in allocating scarce treatment resources and in further criminalizing and stigmatizing persons with mental illness who get caught up in the criminal justice system."

The Supreme Court found the execution of mentally retarded people unconstitutional in 2002, a ruling that Amnesty and other critics find at odds with federal and some states’ policies of keeping mentally ill people on death row. The organization is seeking a full moratorium on executing mentally ill people for much the same reasons the high court found it a violation of the Eight Amendment to execute people with retardation.

"Mental retardation and mental illness are not the same but the symptoms can have similar consequences," Lee said. "A mentally ill person’s delusional beliefs may cause them to engage in illogical reasoning and to act on impulse. There is a profound inconsistency in exempting people with mental retardation from the death penalty while those with serious mental illness remain exposed to it."

Last year, the Court added people under the age of eighteen to the list of those protected from state-sanctioned killing. Connecticut is the only state that practices executions but spares the lives of mentally ill people, Amnesty noted.

According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), state governments have already executed four people this year, bringing the total since the Supreme Court allowed states to decide the issue for themselves to 1,008.

According to the Department of Justice, around 283,000 mentally ill people were imprisoned in the US in 1999, the last year for which full statistics are publicly available.

In a 2003 study charging that "prisons have become the nation’s primary mental health facilities," Human Rights Watch found that three times as many mentally ill people were imprisoned as were in mental health hospitals. Like Amnesty, HRW cited under-funded, disorganized local public health services as the primary cause for the high rate of incarceration of the mentally ill.

Yesterday, the advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness applauded Amnesty’s work. The group charged that the "criminal-justice system is ill-suited to address biologically based brain disorders that create illogical, confused patterns of thought" and called on states to immediately eliminate the death penalty in all cases involving mentally impaired people.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the February 1, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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