The intersection between criminal law and mental health law
by our readers
Dec 19, 2012 | 2799 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The school shooting in Connecticut is a chilling example of the failure of our state mental-health system to treat patients successfully and to protect the public from those patients.

From the time I was in law school, I’ve been frustrated about the lack of interaction between our criminal law and our mental health law, which allows for the mentally ill to avoid the treatment that will enable them to live within the societal norms we’ve established. Those who are on the borderline of functioning well must commit an “overt act” that proves they are a danger to themselves or others before we can force them to receive mental health treatment. Then they go to a state hospital, get “regulated” on their meds, get discharged and refuse treatment once they are free. Oftentimes, they don’t commit an overt act until they commit a horrendous crime, such as the killing of innocent lives.

The biggest challenge, other than finding a way to legally require treatment of those who need it but refuse it, is to create a bridge between criminal law, which is designed to hold folks accountable and punish them for violation of criminal laws, and mental health law, which is designed to protect the mentally ill person and those who are potential victims of that person.

The criminal law provides many methods for enforcement after violations are proved beyond a reasonable doubt; a high standard indeed. Mental health law is designed to provide the mentally ill person the greatest freedom possible under the U.S. Constitution and case law, including the right to refuse the very treatment that would make them safe to live in our communities. As long as this gap exists between criminal law and mental health law, we will continue to have major problems.

Thank you for your consideration of these thoughts.

Brenda S. Stedham
Circuit Judge
Seventh Judicial Circuit
Anniston
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