Jacquielynn Floyd of the Dallas Morning News has a thought-provoking opinion piece up about the Eddie Ray Routh/Chris Kyle case. I’ve avoided this case the way I often avoid cases that get a lot of media attention. Many people miss the point altogether and focus on some detail that has nothing to do with guilt/innocence (like the hero status of Chris Kyle, for instance). Others are just biased to begin with and add nothing to the debate. For these reasons and others, I usually stay out of the fray. This case is different. I practice criminal law and I have handled capital murder cases. I have handled insanity defense cases. And perhaps more than anything, I handle (and I am very much interested in) criminal cases that involve mental health. This case has all these things, so I feel the need to weigh in. 

Floyd’s basic point is this: Routh was clearly profoundly mentally disturbed (in the words of Chris Kyle, “this dude is straight-up nuts.” On the other hand, the jury did not believe he was legally insane and thus found him guilty. Floyd says she has no problem with the verdict and thinks under the law it was the right one. She asks the question – so what should we be doing with people who commit crimes  and who aren’t legally insane but are profoundly mentally ill? 

Personally, I don’t think the answer is to warehouse them in prison. Part of that is based on my feeling that they are mentally ill and deserve treatment. Many people balk at that, though. “Deserve” is a word they feel someone who kills doesn’t, well, deserve. They’re less than human or they’ve forfeited that right, or whatever. I disagree, but I hear what they’re saying. That’s where I think the other arguments people usually ignore pick up the slack. What about the community they’re going into? What about the guards, the medical staff, the administrative staff of the prison. Don’t they deserve to be safe from someone who’s profoundly mentally ill? What about other inmates? Don’t they deserve to be kept safe? Again, many people balk at an inmate deserving anything, but we’re housing them, we owe them reasonable safety. What about the nonviolent, the reformed, the guy who just wants to get out and rebuild his life? Doesn’t he deserve to be kept safe from someone who’s mental illness may drive them to unspeakable acts within the walls of the prison? 

Prison as a warehouse for people we don’t want to think about is convenient, but it’s not a productive way of dealing with our problems. In fact, it’s incredibly selfish. You’re locking them away, so they cease to be YOUR problem, but they don’t cease to be a problem. They just become someone else’s problem. A bunch of guards, medical staff, and administrators are now subjected to that, but what do you care? You don’t have to think about it…

Warehousing bad people is one function of our prisons, but I firmly believe it should only warehouse people who aren’t profoundly mentally ill but are still irredeemably bad. They exist, but they’re a much, much smaller percentage of the population. But people who are suffering from profound mental illness – it’s best for all of us if we get them help. 

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