Remembering Victims When Defense Is Insanity

State Legislatures Magazine - April 2007


When people with mental illness commit crimes, their victims are often left frustrated with the criminal justice system. Legal procedures surrounding the insanity defense are confusing and victims’ rights can be diminished.

“In many instances, victims don’t receive notices of hearings or even of a release,” says John Gillis, director of the federal Office for Victims of Crime. “When an offender becomes a mental patient, you have two different agencies with different interests involved,” he says. “It’s important that victims not get lost in that.”

Although many criminal offenders have mental health problems, insanity pleas are used in relatively few cases, and successful in even fewer. The legal test for insanity varies from state to state, but generally involves a severely abnormal mental condition that significantly impairs a person’s perception of reality and understanding of the charges faced. A defendant’s mental health is decided by a judge or jury after evaluation and testimony by experts, usually psychiatrists.

State legislation in recent years has begun to address what victim advocates consider a gap in providing appropriate rights and services to crime victims.

  • Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana Maine, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Tennessee require notifying a victim of a defendant’s release from a mental institution.
  • North Dakota gives victims the right to prompt notice if their offender is transferred to a mental heath facility. Virginia requires notice to the victim if the offender is allowed an unescorted community visit from the institution.
  • Laws in Arizona, Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri and Pennsylvania allow victims to present and make statements at any applicable court or board hearings regarding the release of a mentally ill offender.
  • Illinois allows victims to pursue a cause of action against a defendant who has committed a crime against them but has been found not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill. The case may be tried and damages recovered as any other civil case.

Whether a defendant is “not guilty by reason of insanity,” or “guilty but mentally ill,” these policies represent steps to see that the rights of victims are not discarded.

More information on victim rights and services is available in NCSL’s published Victims Rights Laws in the States.

Read the full article - "Helping Mentally Ill Criminals". Donna Lyons heads NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program in Denver, Colorado.

Posted April 25, 2007