If a lot of your understanding of the criminal justice system has been obtained through watching television programs and movies, you probably have a very skewed idea of how insanity pleas work. First and foremost, you need to understand that not every state even allows people to plead insanity as a way of lessening their legal culpability for a given charge. In addition to that, there are very few cases where a defense attorney actually tries to get someone to plead insanity as a way to avoid all of the potential punishments for whatever crime they have committed.
Forensic psychologists are not in the business of providing a ready-made defense for heinous criminals and, in addition to that, getting off on insanity is not what people think it is.
Understanding what it Means
Assuming that a person charged with a serious crime murder is the most common example is in a state where they are allowed to plead insanity, let’s take a look at what would actually happen if their defense attorney succeeded in arguing that their client was legally insane.
First, they would have to convince a jury that the person was, indeed, not responsible for their own actions because that person happens to be insane. This would require expert testimony, including the testimony of forensic psychologists, who would have to vouch that the person is not capable of making rational decisions for themselves. There’s a very important aspect that you need to understand about this. If a person cannot make rational decisions for themselves and they constitute a threat to people around them, they can potentially be institutionalized. Being institutionalized is, by no means, getting off easy for a crime.
When a person is institutionalized because a court has found them insane and they have committed a serious crime, it’s much different than going to prison. If you’re sent to prison because of a crime that you committed, you’re given a finite sentence. For example, if somebody murdered someone, they may be given 20 years in prison as a punishment for that. After a certain period of time, they may be eligible for parole or, if they happened to show strong signs that they understood what they had done wrong and that they were able to be reformed, they may even be cut loose early.
If a person is institutionalized, there is no limit on how long they may be held. As long as the people in charge of the defendant believe that the defendant still constitutes a real threat to society, they can keep the defendant institutionalized, possibly for their entire life. There’s no parole from a mental institution. When it comes right down to it, people who are found to be insane and, therefore, people who need to be institutionalized rather than imprisoned don’t get off easy in any sense of the term.
It’s About Appropriateness
When somebody is found to have been insane at the time that they committed a crime, what the prosecutors are trying to do is figure out the appropriate punishment or treatment for that person. If they were not truly responsible for their actions in the way that an adult is understood to be responsible for their actions, punishment may not actually be appropriate. That person may need treatment and monitoring, but they may not have committed whatever crime they committed out of malice or any other motivation that may get them found guilty in court.
People who pursue degrees in forensic psychology oftentimes help to get the worst criminals appropriate treatment rather than helping them to avoid the consequences of their actions.