Volume 57

Not Guilty, Yet Continuously Confined: Reforming the Insanity Defense

by Bailey Wendzel

The insanity defense has been the subject of debate as much in academia as in popular culture. Recently, the defense captured public attention when James Holmes, the man found guilty of the Aurora theater shooting, asserted the defense at trial, igniting popular debate about mental illness and criminal culpability. The debate centers on how we should punish individuals who have committed a crime, yet may not be criminally responsible on account of a mental health condition. Though very few individuals are found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), the insanity defense has long been caught in a contentious balancing act; one that involves balancing individual liberty, public safety, and our belief that individuals with mental health conditions deserve treatment.

For some time, public safety has been the predominant justification for detaining individuals indeterminately until they recover. However, the pendulum has swung so far in favor of protecting public safety that individual liberty and the right to access the least restrictive treatment have become secondary aims when considering release for NGRI individuals. A reformed system must reinstate a balance between the competing rights of individual liberty and public safety. To restore that balance, the courts and the mental health system must work in tandem with the goal of successfully integrating NGRI individuals back into our communities.

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