Mental health professionals are frequently asked to evaluate criminal defendants to assist the courts in determining whether those individuals may have been legally insane (i.e., not criminally responsible) at the time of their crimes. This section discusses the legal concept of criminal responsibility and criteria for insanity, as well as the challenges that forensic experts face in conducting these evaluations.
In contemporary Western society, prohibited behaviors are typically codified in the criminal law, and most citizens are held to be responsible to obey these laws. Individuals who violate the law may be prosecuted and, if convicted, punished for their behavior. Such individuals are said to be “criminally responsible,” a label that reflects the moral and legal judgment that the person had neither a justification nor an excuse for his or her behavior, should have known better, and must endure the punishment as a corrective mechanism intended to discourage the recurrence of such behavior. Read more about Criminal Responsibility.
Criminal Responsibility Research Topics
Based on information gathered from the defendant, the police, and available third-party sources, the forensic examiner attempts to reconstruct an account of the defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense that considers whether, and the extent to which, symptoms of mental disorder may have contributed to the alleged crime. However, as noted above there is no direct translation of clinically recognized mental disorders, which can vary from relatively benign (e.g., nicotine use disorder) to severely incapacitating conditions (e.g., schizophrenia, manic disorder), into legal terms such as disease of the mind or mental disease or defect.
Similarly, various formulations of the legal criteria for insanity require qualitative or quantitative determinations of either the nature of the functional legal impairment (e.g., ability to “know” or to “appreciate” wrongfulness of conduct) or the extent of impairment (e.g., categorically “did not know” vs. “lacked substantial capacity to know”) for which there is no clinical or scientific technology.
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