The Insanity Defense and How we can Reintegrate Insanity Acquitees into Society
In late February a Virginian man was denied release from a psychiatric hospital where he is detained after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in relation to a 2016 murder of 55-year-old Brian E. Szabo, a bank executive. Nigel Walker killed the father of his then girlfriend after an altercation in Richmond, Virginia. Walker successfully pleaded an insanity defense during the trial and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. At the time of completion of the trial, the district attorney in the case said Walker would remain incapacitated in a psychiatric hospital and would not be released. It is clear that the prosecutor in this case did not believe in the ability of the defendant to change and to not be a danger to the community in the future. The judge who denied Walker’s release was of a similar opinion, despite the fact that doctors at three mental hospitals have evaluated Walker, and assessed that he no longer needs inpatient treatment.
The denial of release from confinement in the psychiatric Central State Hospital in this case raises some broader issues about how insanity acquittees are reintegrated into society and how they are released from confinement. When a defendant is found to be insane, he does not receive the same punishment compared to those who are found guilty of the same offense. Such offenders who are ordinarily found guilty face criminal incarceration in our nation’s prisons for a definite period of time i.e they have a definite release date. However, for those found to be insane, they are not only sent to a different institution, but they are also sentenced to indefinite confinement in such a psychiatric institution. Persons found to be insane are confined in a psychiatric hospital until they no longer are mentally ill or until they no longer pose a danger to society. There is a myth amongst the public that insanity acquittees escape punishment and use the insanity defense as a get-out-of-jail-free-card. Despite popular belief, empirical social science studies have shown that insane defendants actually serve longer sentences on average than sane offenders who commit similar crimes. Such longer sentences also have the effect of contributing to the societal negative stereotype that the individuals with mental illnesses are inherently dangerous. In fact, again social science studies demonstrate that this myth is false, and that persons with mental illnesses are no more likely to commit dangerous crimes than persons without mental illnesses.
But if we are to believe in the power and ability of persons to change and reform, we must provide meaningful opportunities for insanity acquittees to get released into the community when they no longer pose a danger to others in society, as the medical authorities believe in Walker’s case. One way to ease the public’s safety concern, while at the same time giving insanity acquittees the opportunity to reintegrate into society, is the option of supervised release. This option could involve the individual released checking in regularly with a parole officer and adhering to certain conditions, such as attending counseling sessions, attending an addiction course if relevant, or attending anger management classes. They would also be required to consistently take their medications and undergo drug tests periodically. Perhaps if the court and prosecutor had considered such a comprehensive model of supervised release, then Mr. Walker could be reintegrated into society successfully. In fact, counsel for Mr. Walker stated that if he was released, he would be monitored by the Community Services Board and would check in monthly. However, the judge disagreed with such a program of conditional release, calling it “woefully insufficient” and denied release.