Why Is The U.S. Still Executing The Mentally Ill?

There’s only one place we can start. In the United States, in 2014, we execute the mentally ill. Despite the outcry from the public and the calls for commuted sentences from activists and politicians, states like Texas continue to execute those who suffer from severe mental illness. All the angry voices raised in unison against what is seen as a moral transgression is just background chatter compared to the simple fact that on Wednesday a man who had a three-decades-long history of mental illness and hospitalization was temporarily saved from execution at the final hour. His future is still entirely up in the air, and there are many reasons to believe he will eventually be put to death by the state of Texas. He is only the latest, and will not be the last.

Scott Panetti was sentenced to death for killing his in-laws in 1992. He has a history of schizophrenia and has delusions of fighting Satan. Prior to murdering his wife’s parents, he had gone off his medication. Despite his delusions, he was allowed to defend himself, and tried to subpoena JFK and the Pope. After convicting him of murder, it took just one day of deliberation for the jury to sentence him to death. Although a last-minute stay was placed on his execution, it only came after years of appeals and calls for intervention by Governor Perry went ignored.

This isn’t an isolated incident. In 2013, John Ferguson was executed in Florida despite a four decade long history of severe mental illness. The year before, Gary Allen, who suffered from schizophrenia and dementia, was executed in Oklahoma. That same year, Mississippi executed Edwin Turner, who had a long-standing history of mental illness in his family. Year after year contains examples of inmates who showed signs of severe mental illness, but were still put to death.

The death penalty is a source of endless controversy in the United States, as many see it as a nonfunctional deterrent to crime or a barbaric throwback with no place in the modern justice system. These arguments are bolstered by incidents of wrongful accusation and botched execution attempts that cause extreme pain and physical distress. But in the case of the mentally ill, many raise the concern that the punishment has no real meaning. If the intent behind capital punishment is to dole out the ultimate sentence for the worst crimes, what value does it have if one is too unstable to understand that they committed a crime or understand the significance of the punishment?

In 1986, the Supreme Court case Ford vs. Wainwright found that capital punishment could not be applied to those with severe mental illness that makes it impossible for them to understand their crime or the punishment, but in the intervening years the precedent has not held up in local courts. Competency tests designed to ensure the stability of those on trial all vary across states, and what looks unstable to one judge may not to another. As a result, the mentally ill continue to fall through the cracks. 

But execution is only one place where the justice system is failing those with severe mental illness. According to government statistics, 64% of inmates have some mental condition. The use of solitary confinement is higher among inmates with mental illness, and time in confinement increases by over three times the risk of self-harm. State prison reports routinely find that prisons are unable to provide assistance to the high number of inmates who need mental health services, while a study by the Treatment Advocacy Program this year found that almost ten times as many mentally ill individuals are in prisons than are in psychiatric hospitals. 

The mentally ill are among the most vulnerable in our society, and the justice system has failed to find effective means to ensure they are not made victims of a broken system. The continued use of capital punishment against those with severe mental illness is a dark mark on our moral compass as a country, highlighting the dangers of a justice system that does not value human dignity. To the U.S. prison system and the U.S. justice system, all too often those who most desperately need help are seen and treated as nothing more than typical criminals, starving them of critical treatment. It is something of which we should all be ashamed.

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