insanity defenseLast updated
When an attorney uses the insanity defense, they argue that the individual’s mental state at the time of the crime in question either a) prevented them from fully comprehending their actions, or b) made them unable to control their actions. If the insanity defense is successful, the person will be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” (NGRI). They typically will not face criminal charges, but may be sent to court-ordered treatment.
A mental health disorder diagnosis is not enough to make a successful NGRI plea. Insanity is a legal status, not a clinical one. Someone cannot be diagnosed with insanity. Also, it’s useful in reporting on NGRI to offer context on the long history within the US of criminalizing mental illness; according to the US Justice Department, more people with mental health conditions are incarcerated in the US than receiving treatment in mental hospitals.
NGRI pleas are quite rare, and successful pleas are even rarer. Defendants who are found guilty after attempting an NGRI defense often get longer sentences. Defendants who get acquitted are often in custody and inpatient treatment longer than their peers. The large majority of trials that involve the insanity defense do not dispute whether the person has a mental health issue, as they had a diagnosis prior to the crime.
The American Psychiatric Association “strongly supports” the use of the insanity defense but does not recommend any particular test. Each state decides its own criteria to use for this type of defense. As of March 2019, five states — Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah — don’t recognize the insanity defense.
Insanity is a legal status in which a person’s psychiatric condition precludes them from being held responsible for their actions. Insanity is a legal status, not a clinical one, meaning someone cannot be diagnosed with insanity, but they can enter an insanity defense in court. Being mindful of which situation you’re reporting on when making language choices is important for accuracy.