Three Experts Discuss the Role of Insanity in Our Legal System

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Three leading legal scholars speak to Pacific Standard about the nature and history of the insanity defense, as well as its impact on our criminal justice system and public perceptions of people diagnosed with mental illness.

“At the basis of the insanity defense lays the question of culpability and competency: Does the individual’s cognitive ability interfere with mens rea, the intent behind a committed act? Judges must evaluate and decide if the defendant’s mental state prohibited them from understanding the consequences of one’s actions at the time of the event and the ‘wrongfulness’ of one’s actions. The definition of insanity varies from state to state for those who offer the insanity plea; Kansas, Montana, Idaho, and Utah do not allow the use of the insanity defense.

What does it mean for the severely mentally ill to have the option to plead insanity? How should the insanity defense be applied in court? Who is acquitted and who isn’t? What happens once they are acquitted? What does the use of the insanity defense suggest about the intersection of the legal system in the United States and mental-health infrastructure in communities?”

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