The insanity defense (“not guilty by reason of insanity”) is used in criminal cases and is based on the principle that a person charged with a crime is too impaired due to mental illness to be held criminally responsible for their actions. People who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are usually committed to secure mental health treatment facilities for indefinite periods of time. The benefit of successful insanity pleas is that people are sentenced to treatment instead of incarceration in prisons. However, the insanity defense often results in long term institutional placements that can be longer than prison sentences resulting from guilty verdicts.
Where NAMI Stands
NAMI supports retaining the insanity defense in appropriate cases. Standards for determining whether someone meets the criteria for insanity should be based on the current scientific knowledge about mental illness. For example, these standards should take into consideration not just the person’s understanding of the crime, but also the impact that symptoms of their mental illness, such as delusions or hallucinations, may have had on their actions.
NAMI believes that juries should be informed as the consequences of each verdict as they apply specifically to defendants with mental illness. Jurors should understand that a verdict “not guilty by reason of mental illness” does not result in the defendant being immediately released to once again pose a danger to society.
A number of states have adopted “guilty but mentally ill” statutes. NAMI opposes the use guilty but mentally ill in criminal cases. Although this verdict acknowledges the existence of mental illness, it does not lessen the penalty or reduce the sentence that is imposed.
What NAMI is doing
NAMI advises and provides technical assistance to NAMI State Organizations and Affiliates on a range of issues pertaining to the insanity defense. We have participated in task forces, worked with the media and written articles on the subject.