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Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity: A New Thread for Review of a Forensic Psychology Concept

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:51pm

I thought I’d change things up a bit, since I’ve been reviewed an awful lot of different news related to clinical psychology, and relatively little with respect to forensic psychology. With the exception of the Josef Fritzl case, I don’t think I’ve written anything about forensic psychology in quite a while.

Now, I know I’ve still got some work to do to finish my initial thread on competency to stand trial, and I’ve only scratched the surface regarding the treatment of offenders. Be that as it may, I will introduce yet another category. Why? Because. See, that was easy!

Actually, it is in part to offer my more topics to choose in terms of posting, on any given day. I figured if I have more concepts I am writing about, it’ll be easier to maintain interesting and motivation. One day, I may feel like addressing competency, another day, therapy, etc. This allows for a wider range of commentary.

Another issue is personal relevance. While I won’t directly address issues related to a case I am working on, I do regularly come across stuff at work that would be interesting to post about. If I’ve already covered the basics, I might be more apt to address the issue with a post.

A third issue is that blogging keeps me sharp, at least with respect to whatever I’m writing about. I’ve already learned a ton from reviewing the daily posts on psychology at science web pages and blogs. I also find that writing original posts on topics forces me to learn/review/organize my knowledge in that particular area. In fact, that has been the biggest surprise regarding blogging - how much I’ve learned.

So, with that, here is the first blurb about the issue of responsibility, or “Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity” (NGRI):

Generally speaking, in order to consider that an individual is guilty of committing a crime, there must be proof of two element: 1) the individual engaged in unlawful conduct (actus reus); and 2) the individual did so with unlawful intent (mens rea). The degree, or amount, of intent is usually included in the description of the offense. For example, there are differing levels of intent necessary for the commission of involuntary manslaughter versus first degree murder.

The second prong noted above (mens rea) presumes that people act with free will (now, I know this is a debate that has raged forever, and will likely be never be settled, but from a legal standpoint this larger debate doesn’t matter). The law does recognize, however, that while most of us choose our own behavior, and are therefore responsible for it, some individuals are incapacitated due to mental illness to the extent that their free will is impaired.

Broadly speaking, the first type of mental illness that can be considered to potentially impair free will would be mental illnesses that impair cognitive functioning. This would be the sort of mental illness that impairs an individual’s ability to make rational, informed decisions based on a reasonable understanding of the world. For example, an individual with an IQ of 45 would almost certainly be considered cognitively impaired to the point where mens rea would not be assumed. That is, due to severe cognitive limitations, that individual would not be considered able to grasp the world in such a manner that unlawful intent would be ascribed to him or her. A non-mental health way of looking at this would be how we would address a crime committed by a five-year old. We simply don’t hold a five-year old to the same standards as an adult, because their capacity to understand the world and reality is significantly limited.

In the next post, we’ll address the second aspect of a limitation on free will.

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