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  • Michael Mullan

The Prohibition of the Death Penalty Against Persons with Mental Illnesses

In the past week news outlets have reported on two states, Tennessee and Arkansas, that have seen legislative proposals to ban the use of death penalty on persons with severe mental illnesses. In Tennessee a new bill (SB1124) has been drafted and is due to be heard by the Criminal Justice Subcommittee next week. However, in the case of Arkansas, the draft bill (House Bill 1494) has already failed as it was rejected by the House Judiciary Committee.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the death penalty is prohibited for defendants who have intellectual disabilities, it has yet to prohibit its use for the severely mentally ill. Both bills in Tennessee and Arkansas have attempted to eliminate the use of the death penalty for defendants who have severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

According to studies reviewed by Mental Health America, it has been estimated that between 20 and 50% of inmates sentenced to death have suffered from a mental illness. As a result, it is clear that the capital punishment of the mentally ill is a significant problem in our criminal justice system. Furthermore, the rationales behind the prohibition of using the death penalty against this population is also significant.

The reasoning behind these bills is that persons who have severe mental illnesses at the time of the commission of a capital crime such as murder, do not have the same culpability as offenders whose criminal behavior is not affected or influenced by a severe mental illness. Another reason to outlaw the use of the death penalty for this population, is that those who have severe mental illnesses will not be deterred to the same effect as their non-disabled counterparts. Like persons who have an intellectual disability, offenders who have severe mental illnesses have “diminished ability to process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, or to control impulses.” Similarly, there are enhanced possibilities for rehabilitation and reform for those with mental illnesses given that their mental illness can be managed through medication and other treatments.

As a result, it is clear that some legislative or judicial intervention is needed at a national level to eliminate the use of the death penalty for those who have severe mental illnesses.

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