People with serious mental health issues who don’t receive the treatment and care they need can leave a trail of heartache behind them as they wander through life. It’s a heartache that not only they themselves suffer, but their family, their friends, or, potentially, a stranger in the wrong place at the wrong time who can become the victim of violence fueled by mental illness.
Though most individuals with severe mental illness are not violent – more likely to become crime victims than perpetrators – a lack of access to treatment can lead to delusions, disassociation, and sometimes, violence. And in Tennessee today, there is simply not enough access to treatment.
Too often, we turn to the police officer, the jailer, the judge to pick up the pieces of broken lives when it is the counselor, the psychologist, the doctor who has the proper tools to mend these wounds.
In a 2014 op-ed in Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean, Davidson County Mental Health Court Judge Daniel Eisenstein wrote: “In 2004, the Mental Health Court served approximately 50 people at any given time. ... In January 2014, approximately 180 people were being supervised by the court, in addition to a separate docket of military veterans with mental health and substance abuse problems serving approximately 30 men and women. Why has this happened? Mainly, money and priorities. … Mental health treatment has in many cases been shifted from state-run mental health facilities and community programs to courts, jails and prisons.”
Increasingly, the people who desperately need this care, but don’t receive it, are our military veterans, those who have offered their lives in service of their country and come home with unseen scars, experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and accompanying mental health issues.
For far too many, their mental illness leads them to commit criminal acts, with the most serious consequences.
We now have an estimated 300 U.S. veterans sitting on death row in this country awaiting execution. How can we as a society say we don’t have the resources to treat them, but if they commit a terrible crime, we will spend millions to execute them?
The Tennessee General Assembly is considering House Bill 0345 and Senate Bill 0378 which would prohibit the death penalty as a punishment for defendants suffering from severe mental illness at the time of the offense. Both bills currently are in committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
When an individual who has a severe mental illness is guilty of committing a heinous crime, there must be consequences. But is the death penalty appropriate? There is precedent. In the U.S., we don’t execute minors or those with intellectual disabilities.
As in all questions of morality, we can turn to the teachings of the Catholic Church for guidance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act,” and “conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed.”
In short, reasonable and rational understanding is required for the conscience. If reason is impaired, then there cannot be a legitimate judgment of the moral quality of an act, which, as a consequence, lessens or excludes responsibility.
To this point, the Catechism says, “the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder.”
As Catholics, we are called to support legislative policies that exclude those diagnosed with severe mental illness from the death penalty. By supporting these types of legislative efforts, we are answering Jesus’ call: “I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Individuals with severe mental illness who commit these crimes should be held accountable, but with appropriate sentences, like life in prison or life without parole, not the death penalty.
Excluding individuals with severe mental illness from the death penalty on a case-by-case basis is just smart policy as victims’ families are spared decades of litigation, costs to taxpayers are reduced, resources can be dedicated to mental health care and support for police, and Tennessee can move toward a criminal justice system that is better for all.
This guest editorial was written by Jennifer Murphy, the executive director of the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, which represents the three dioceses of Tennessee in debates over public policy issues.