Not Criminally Responsible: The Burden of Accusation and Popular Misconceptions

This an essay I wrote while in college several years ago. It’s not my usual writing style.

On the surface, to be found Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) would be more acceptable and advantageous than a guilty finding. However, responsibility and blame are placed on NCR individuals even though the law finds them not responsible, and they are subjected to punishment and a loss of liberties which is comparable to penal sanctions. The number of Not Criminally Responsible individuals is statistically overestimated in the judicial system and NCR individuals are thought to be prescribed shorter sentences. Being NCR also means navigating through a new world of social stigma which exceeds that of a common criminal. Individuals who commit a crime and are considered or found Not Criminally Responsible face more severe social consequences and punitive measures than criminals tried and or convicted without the Not Criminally Responsible defence.

NCR offenders are the recipients of additional blame due to the effects of the “just world hypothesis.”“The just world hypothesis (Lerner & Simmons, 1966) states that individuals believe that people have direct control over their fate and get what they deserve in life” (Murray, Spadafore, McIntosh 35). The just world hypothesis applies to victims whereby blame is placed on a victim to reinforce a person’s belief that somehow people get what they deserve. Since this may be an automatic process (Murray, Spadafore, McIntosh 35), it can be hypothesized that in the case of an individual losing touch with reality and acting unlawfully as a result, more blame may be placed on this perpetrator who in essence is also a victim. The law clearly states that such individuals are not responsible. To accept the fact that they are not responsible, one has also to accept that mental illness can strike an individual through no fault of their own with severe ramifications. Those found NCR are in fact victims whose existence threatens the ideal of a predictable and just world where we control our own fate. People are uncomfortable with mental illness because it is indiscriminate and has no apparent cause. Kay Redfield Jamison a well known author and psychiatrist who is bi-polar experienced the effects of the just world hypothesis in response to her book. She states, “I received thousands of letters from people. Most of them were supportive but many were exceedingly hostile. A striking number said that I deserved my illness…” (Jamison 533). Not Criminally Responsible individuals face the same hostility.

NCR individuals are not spared punitive measures. There are several purposes to punishment. People feel the need for retribution – some form of punishment comparable to the harm done by the offense. Society also believes punishment serves as a deterrent to the offender and others (Pollock 265). Both purposes are problematic. Retribution is not equal to the crime in many cases. Some people are comfortable in jail while others suffer greatly. For those suffering from mental illness, jail can be terrifying. Often the correctional response to mental illness is isolation, which can make symptoms worse (Kondo 255).Brad, whom the author interviewed and who suffers from schizophrenia, spent his 4 months in jail (waiting for transfer to a hospital), isolated in medical cells where there are no TV, radio, books or news, natural light, or cellmates. Mark, another interviewee, spent 8 weeks of his ten months between the “Hole” and medical cells. The “Hole” has no mattress during the day, 24 hour light, and “a four inch window with a view of a wall.” Kondo describes what it must be like for NCR individuals in jail; “to be in jail is a miserable, horrible experience. It’s full of shame, it’s full of defeat, it’s full of hopelessness, it’s scary. It would have to be 10 times more difficult for mentally ill offenders than for those without phobias, depression, schizophrenia, or other disorders” (255). The experience of jail without delusions, hallucinations, and depression invokes anxiety in most of its inhabitants.

People who are unable to appreciate the nature of their crime, specifically the fact that it was criminally wrong and probably morally wrong, many times through treatment come to the full realization of their act(s). For some, the extreme disparity between their actions and their true nature is overwhelming. Scott, stated “that not a day goes by when I don’t think about it.” Despite not choosing their predicaments and being victims of an illness, many NCR patients take responsibility for their actions and the burden of their illnesses. For those seeking retribution, reality and the memory of crimes committed can be a significant and severe form of punishment for these individuals.

As a deterrent, punishment is ineffective. If it was effective there would be no crime to punish (Pepinsky, Jesilow 122). Others would view the punishment and be deterred while those who were already criminals would be deterred and not re-offend. In 2004/2005 approximately 32,100 adults were incarcerated (Beattie 2) with minimal change to crime rates. Furthermore, one third of offenders re-offend within two years (Beattie 13). Allowing a very small percentage of individuals to circumvent the penal system has little effect on deterrence which may have minimal influence anyway.

Another purpose of punishment is incapacitation, whereby a person is prevented from committing future offences (Pollock 267). Those found Not Criminally Responsible are generally housed in maximum security units initially. According to Scott, at Regional Mental Health Care in St. Thomas, the maximum and medium secure forensic units have bars on the windows, security cameras throughout the common areas, metal detectors and a series of locked doors off the unit. There can be little doubt that while the patient is in the assessment stage and early stages of treatment and recovery he/she is no more capable of escape or re-offense than a criminal. Brad, who is under a community detention order, explained that individuals are monitored by a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, mental health nurse, and other support staff. Most accused are required to comply with drug and alcohol screening and have geographical limitations; all of these conditions can be considered forms of prevention.

A general misconception is that NCR individuals receive lighter sentences. If the individual is deemed to not be a risk to the public he/she may be released immediately, but this provision is very rarely exercised (Gray, Shone, Liddle 337). Individuals receive a yearly hearing whereby the Ontario Review Board reviews their status and either recommends that they remain in hospital, be released with conditions, or receive an absolute discharge (Gray, Shone, Liddle 337). There is no cap to the time an individual remains under a Disposition; therefore, patients are detained indefinitely and are often held for periods longer than what would be prescribed for a criminal who was found guilty of the same offence without a mental disorder (Adshead 302). Mark’s offence was criminal harassment, which is sometimes dealt with by fines (Statistics Canada). He spent 10 months in jail which, because it was pre-trial custody, would count two for one (20 months). He spent two years incarcerated in the hospital and has been in the community for two years conditionally. This example illustrates the fact that not all NCR patients “get off easy.” As McLaughlin points out: “Charter challenges to these lengthy incarcerations have failed…” consequently this defence is usually employed in more serious crimes (1).

Another popular misconception is that those found NCR are prevalent in the justice system. Using statistics from Baltimore, the data does not support this view. Of 60,432 indictments only 190 plead NCR and all but 8 dropped the defence. These 8 were unchallenged (Janofsky,Dunn, Roskes, Briskin, Rudolph, Lunstrum 1464). Janofsky et al also found college students believed the defence was used 80 times more than it actually is and they thought it was successful 3,600 more times than statistics show (1464). The American system varies from state to state but is comparable to Canada in most states making these findings statistically relevant (Viljoen, Roesh, Ogloff, Zapf 369). This severe misconception is a direct result of popular media. NCR cases are consistently reported because they are controversial and often high profile because of their severity. Because so many of these cases dominate the media, while similar criminal offences do not, the public overestimates their occurrence.

Those found NCR suffer from a double stigma. Not only are they labelled criminals but they also have to deal with the stigma of being mentally ill. For some, they have had no experience with either and find the labels humiliating and isolating. By demonizing and blaming those who are NCR, they can be labelled as insane. Blaming serves two purposes. Their actions and illnesses can be written off as aberrations that could never happen to normal people, which supports the just world hypothesis. And labels provide mental molds that can be cast for people so others feel separate and safe from them. If they are not stereotyped and compartmentalized they are allowed to occupy what comprises the “normal” world. Labelling and stereotyping negate the possibility that one could be as they are or that they could possess similar human characteristics. As a name and object of scorn or hate they are dissimilar and one could not imagine being as they are. Link and Phelan mention labelling as part of the stigmatization process . . . . “ the group doing the labelling separates ‘them’-the stigmatised group-from ‘us’(Link, Phelan 528).

McFadyen’s comment that there are more dangerous people roaming the streets than there are in forensic hospitals is logical (1436). In reality, many people fear those who are NCR. People fear the unknown and many know little about mental illness and this aspect of the law; most rely on movies and news headlines for their information. Many are terrified by the prospect of losing control of their minds or emotions and most pride themselves on being rational and in control. To think there are illnesses that can destroy what is essential for functioning, is terrifying.

To be found Not Criminally Responsible is not an easy way out. Responsibility and blame are still attached to these individuals, often by themselves. Most are subjected to jails and are forced to navigate this system and its inhabitants with the disability of a mental illness. NCR individuals usually serve time in secure hospital settings often for lengths exceeding traditional sentences. They are also a very small group of offenders who in no way exploit the legal system but are in fact prone to abuse by it. Most significant for these individuals is that society deems them as criminal and insane, leaving them to deal with stereotypes and stigma and the social isolation that accompanies them. Adshead sums up the predicament of Not Criminally Responsible individuals when he states, “it is hard not to perceive that the interests of mentally abnormal offenders come at the bottom of almost any list of priorities; partly because such patients are vulnerable and can be exploited, but also because they are ‘guilty’ individuals, and can thus claim less moral or legal protection” (302).

2 thoughts on “Not Criminally Responsible: The Burden of Accusation and Popular Misconceptions

  1. Brett, while this work is not representative of your usual style I expect that your college professor rarely received an essay with this degree of insight and value. Thanks.

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