Guest column by Bob Joondeph, published in the Oregonian, September 25, 2011. Bob is Executive Director of Disability Rights Oregon.
The insanity defense has been part of Anglo-American law for centuries. An English legal treatise from 1581 noted that if “a madman or a natural fool, or a lunatic in the time of his lunacy [commits a crime] this is no felonious act for they cannot be said to have any understanding will.” While the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness has changed tremendously over the years, our sense of justice has consistently recognized that punishing a person for actions she cannot control is wrong.
When a defendant is found “guilty except for insanity” in Oregon, she is usually committed to the state hospital for custody, care and treatment for a period of time that is necessary to control the person’s symptoms and return her safely to society. The maximum period allowed for this commitment is the longest a defendant could have been put in prison if she had been convicted. The vast majority of successful insanity defenses are agreed to by the district attorney handling the case.
The state hospital hires psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and a variety of other professionals and skilled workers to restore the mental health of patients. The hospital has security staff to assure that treatment can be provided in a manner that is safe for patients, staff and the community. Patients are not in the state hospital to “do time.” They are there to get well.
Recently, one patient ran away from a supervised walk on hospital grounds and jumped into a waiting car to make his getaway. He was captured 17 days later in Sandy, the same town where his 2009 auto wreck caused the tragic death of two people and resulted in his commitment for two counts of second-degree manslaughter.
Some have questioned whether patients at the state hospital should be allowed to walk outside the facility walls and whether they should be permitted to have uncensored communication with others. If the goal of the hospital is to return its patients to health, the answer is a resounding “yes!” This is, in fact, what the hospital is licensed and staffed to do and what it is asked to do by the criminal justice system.
Mental illness can be effectively treated and the majority of patients in the state hospital will recover and be reintegrated into society. Punishing them with long years of languishing behind high walls is bad for the patients, bad for the hospital environment and financially wasteful. It also violates patients’ civil and legal rights to safe and effective treatment that is not unduly isolated from society, and it undermines hope for patients and staff alike.
We at Disability Rights Oregon think the hospital has taken appropriate steps to review the individual security assessments of other patients to assure that they are up-to-date and accurate. The actions of one patient should not harm the treatment of others. A thorough investigation should be completed to determine if criminal prosecution is appropriate for those who planned and executed the escape.