Pondering the Tedtalk and my newly decided topic (blog #5)

Caroline Kimble




I’ve always wondered why some companies thrive while other companies with equally good ideas don’t get very far, but this TEDtalk verbalized something I could never describe. When I think about recent successful movements I think about the local/organic/healthy food movement. It’s not driven by “our food will lower your risk of cancer because it has less pesticides” or “more vitamins and nutrients than generic store-bought types,” but instead it’s driven by a statements along the lines of “we believe in a world where food is sustainably harvested, where we eat in a way that nourishes and honors our body, where we come together as a community to produce the products we need instead of importing them from foreign countries that often pay their workers unfair wages.” Because of this mission statement people are willing to pay more money for local or organic products. If they wanted more nutrients they could look to many places including vitamins or Ovaltine, but people want more than just the facts because they can stand behind a movement in ways you just can’t connect with facts.

So I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’m going for a different topic. This post is fairly introductory because it is an introduction! It’s a short history of how the world has handled  “guilty by reasons of insanity,” and how it’s changing today in the United States.

guilty by reason of insanity?

Since the 1800’s in the United States a person could commit a crime, but not be responsible for it if  during the time they committed the crime they were unable to think logically due to a psychiatric disease. They plead insanity, and they are excused from the regular punishment for the law they broke would warrant. Though this seems like an American idea- not to unjustly punish those who could not be held accountable for their actions- this tradition dates back to the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi was a Babylonian leader who famously created one of the first sets of laws to govern his empire, including one law that exempted the mentally ill from receiving full punishment for their actions. In 1800 in England the Criminal Lunatics Act was adopted after a man named Jame Hadfield came back from the Battle of Tourcoing (1794) with serious brain injury, and tried to assassinate the King of England because he believed it would help the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Courts in England realized it would be unfair to punish him for attempted assassination because he was of unsound mind, and so once the Criminal Lunatics Act was passed Hadfield was no longer held guilty of attempted murder.

The United States courts adopted this policy, but recently things have begun to change – and not in the right direction.  In 1981 when John Hinckley shot and nearly killed Ronald Reagan. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but the American public was outraged. How could he get away with shooting the President and not be duly punished? Many states began to move towards a different policy: guilty but mentally ill. This meant if during the time of your crime you were incapacitated enough to not know what you were doing you were still guilty, but you served part of your time in a mental hospital. If they recovered from the mental illness through treatment they were sent to the jail to finish the rest of their term. This brings up a serious moral question though: is it right to punish someone for a crime when they weren’t able to think clearly, and now are recovered and sitting in jail wasting their lives? I believe in a government that governs with compassion and understanding, not reacts with laws in fear or anger. Many states adopt the guilty but mentally insane law out of fear that the recovered mentally ill violators will once again hurt society, or out of anger (like in the case of John Hinckley.)  But we should not be basing the laws of our society on the ideas of justice through revenge (i.e. you caused me pain-even if you didn’t mean to- so therefore you must live the rest of your life in a jail cell.) It believe that as a society we need to evaluate our motives in adopting this law and see that they’re not as justified as we thought they were. We need to make sure perpetrators with mental illness are given the chance to recover completely and return to society. Maybe they do need to be carefully monitored the rest of their lives, but maybe they just needed proper medication and psychological counseling to function as aware thoughtful human beings.

Caroline Kimble

3 Responses to “Pondering the Tedtalk and my newly decided topic (blog #5)

  • You are right. This is square one. A very new idea. One that you are mulling over deeply, for sure, but it does not line up with the amount of thinking your peers have given to ideas they have been developing for several weeks. Nevertheless, let’s proceed.

    How might you move forward? Ideas for your next steps?
    Who is inspiring you, in terms of research or furthering your ideas?
    Connection to Sinek’s ideas?
    How might you get others to care about your idea?

    I look forward to square two! In fact, you may want to retrace your steps with this newly born idea, and create a mind map to see where it leads your thinking!

  • Lillian Reeves
    6 years ago

    Wow Caroline — this is a big departure from your earlier topics.

    What got you interested in this topic?

    I definitely think that mental illness doesn’t get enough attention in our society and the stigmas associated with mental illness compounded by the cost of receiving care can drive anyone away from seeking help. Our prisons are full of mentally ill people, despite the references your quoted in your post.

    Having said that, the treatment mentally ill inmates receive is certainly a social justice issue. If state’s don’t have strong support services and outreach programs in place for mentally ill citizens, it would follow that the justice system and prisons are even less prepared to address mental illness. Have you heard of the Southern Poverty Law Center? They are a huge legal advocacy group who represent many people, groups, and organizations who cannot afford legal council. They just won a huge case in Alabama where the state is now mandated to overhaul their prison system’s mental health programming.

    The research you mentioned and the plea, “not guilty by reason of insanity” is an incredibly tricky and complicated defense and often is not generalizable to other cases. Having said that, regardless of the plea, people with mental illness who are wrongly imprisoned or who are trapped in prison longer than they would have been if they had proper mental illness treatment, absolutely deserve rehabilitation. People who have committed minor infractions who are also mentally ill and homeless, abandoned, or unable to decipher between right and wrong, also deserve rehabilitation and as many social services as states and local governments can provide. Having said that, many states, my own included, don’t believe it is the state’s responsibility to care for or rehabilitate offenders, despite the fact that many people who go to jail once, often end up in jail again unless better support and rehabilitation services are provided.

    So where will you go from here with this topic? Is there something happening locally in VT that has gotten your focus or attention? What does VT do for mentally ill inmates? How many people are in prison in Vermont who have who have pled not guilty by reason of insanity?

    I’m looking forward to hearing more from you!

  • Hi Caroline,
    Wow, this is new. But I like it. I’ve never really thought about this issue at all. I think most people just think of our legislation as fair and don’t think about the individual whose being prosecuted. I wonder if there is a solution that attends to both sides arguments? And how does this affect Vermont? How does our state deal with cases like these? How does it affect the community?

    Can’t wait to see you explore more,

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