Mass murderers: mental illness or extreme ideology?

June 30, 2016 • 10:00 am

Anders Breivik is the Norwegian white supremacist who killed 77 of his countrymen in 2011: 8 in a car bomb in Oslo, and then 69 later that day in a worker’s camp on an island. Many of the dead were young people. Before the murders he had written manifestos about his opposition to Muslims in his country and his desire to see all Muslims expelled from Europe. If ever there was a case of a crime motivated by “Islamophobia” (I prefer “Muslimophobia”), this is it.

But was it? Perhaps it was really mental illness that made him run amok. After all, some blame the crimes of Muslim terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers not on religious motivations, but on simple mental illness. Today’s post is about a new paper that tries to distinguish between these motivations.

Before Breivik was tried, the courts, as they often do in the U.S., ordered him to undergo a psychiatric examination. The team of forensic psychiatrists pronounced that he was legally insane—suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. And, according to Norwegian law, if that was the case he’d be off the hook. This is what the paper I’m about to discuss says:

. . . The General Civil Penal Code of Norway [states] A person who was psychotic or unconscious at the time of committing the act shall not be liable to a penalty. The same applies to a person who at the time of committing the act was mentally retarded to a high degree.

Now I’m not sure if that meant he’d get of scot-free or simply be put in a mental hospital. Is hospitalization considered a “penalty”? Perhaps a Norwegian can weigh in here. But at any rate, that initial diagnosis caused a huge uproar, because people wanted Breivik punished for the crime. After all, 77 people died by his hand! Sure enough, he was re-examined by a second group of experts who found that he was not psychotic when he committed his crimes. He could then be tried nomally. After trial and conviction, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison—the maximum sentence possible under Norwegian law. (I’ve posted about Norway’s enlightened justice system here, and noted that if he’s found not to be reformed after 21 years, he’ll do another five, get re-evaluated, and so on, so the sentence isn’t really fixed.)

I’m dubious, however, about people immediately pronouncing such murderers as “mentally ill,” as well as mandating any formal judgment on that issue by psychiatric teams. First of all, if you simply think someone’s mentally ill because they’d have to be to do such a crime, that makes the whole judgment tautological. In such a case “mentally ill” simply becomes equivalent to “mass murder”, and the perpetrator is automatically exculpated. No, there has to be an independent way to judge mental illness—independent of the action itself.

And that’s what the forensic team is for. The problem is that they’re saddled with archaic and confusing formal definitions of “psychosis” and “mental illness”. In the U.S., these definitions are embodied in the deeply problematic Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which lays out what behavioral criteria must be met to be diagnosed medically with depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and so on. And the criteria change over time. At one time even being gay was diagnosed as a form of mental illness!

It’s just a mess, and you can have competing “expert” psychiatrists give contradictory diagnoses, which is what happened in Breivik’s case.

The solution, to me, is to do away with these formal diagnoses completely. One’s object should be threefold: protect society from the perpetrator, deter others who might do similar crimes, and reform the criminal so he can reenter society without posing further danger. The second goal is a sociological problem, while the first and third can be accomplished without formal diagnosis of the criminal. You simply see what kind of treatment is most likely to reform the behavior of the criminal, apply that treatment, and tweak it under confinement. That allows for a whole spectrum of antisocial behavior rather than the rigid categories of the DSM, and takes into account what I believe as a determinist: all criminals had something about their brains that made them commit crimes, whether it be a bad childhood, a desire for money, or more formal “diseases.” All should be treated, and, of course, all will require treatment tailored to their “disorder.”

My scheme, then is this: first try the accused to see if he/she did the crime. If the person is convicted, then tailor the punishment to the criminal and the crime, taking into account deterrence, sequestration, and reformation—but not retribution. The punishment, or treatment, should be determined by experts rather than judges or juries, though the experts don’t have to settle on a formal diagnosis. Norway conforms to this approach much more closely than the U.S., which may be why Norway’s prison recidivism rate is just 20% over five years, compared to 77% percent in the U.S.

However, a new paper by Tahir Rahman et al. in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law  (reference and free download below) suggests another approach, one I’m sympathetic to but don’t agree with completely. The title of the paper gives its thesis: “Anders Breivik: Extreme beliefs mistaken for psychosis.

What the authors claim is simply that psychiatrists haven’t learned to distinguish between psychosis, which has conflicting definitions but is generally seen as a behavioral syndrome that includes delusions, and what they call “extreme beliefs
and “overvalued ideas”: beliefs like Breivik’s about Muslims that, while misguided, are not themselves medically delusional.  And Rahman et. al use, as the definition of Breiviks’ syndrome, one concocted by the German psychiatrist Carl Wernicke (1848-1905):

An overvalued idea differs from an obsession in that, al-though it dominates the mind as an obsession does, the subject does not fight an overvalued idea but instead relishes, amplifies, and defends it. Indeed, the idea fulminates in the mind of the subject, growing more dominant over time, more refined, and more resistant to challenge.

Rahman et al. see Breivik’s right-wing and anti-Muslim views as one of these “extreme overvalued beliefs.” They also mention extreme religious views that lead to similar murders, like Christian killings of abortion doctors or Islamists’ killings of civilians in places like Paris and Istanbul.  They would not, as many atheists do, see extreme religious belief as either delusional or a form of mental illness. The God Delusion might be re-titled The Overvalued God Idea.

What’s the upshot? To Rahman et al., their analysis shows that courts need to consider that beliefs like Breivik’s aren’t a species of insanity, and thus aren’t subject to the insanity defense:

We believe that Mr. Breivik’s behavior is an example of violence stemming from extreme overvalued beliefs. The evidence suggests he had vehement emotions regarding Muslims, immigrants, and liberal political parties. It appears to have dominated his mind. Based on our review of the data, Mr. Breivik’s beliefs were unaccompanied by other cardinal symptoms seen in severe mental illness, and his beliefs were not considered bizarre by the court, especially in the context of right-wing ideologies. His manifesto was not a form of disorganized speech, but rather a series of beliefs that he had sought out, copied, selectively altered, and incorporated and thereby “relished, amplified, and defended” throughout his trial.

And these are the implications they see for the legal system:

The fact that a defendant committed a crime because of a delusional belief is a common basis for an insanity defense. It is therefore critically important that forensic psychiatrists properly identify a defendant’s belief as either a delusion or as an extreme overvalued belief.

This seems, however, like a distinction without a meaningful difference. Yes, it would affect Breivik’s fate if his motivations were determined to be “overvalued beliefs” rather than psychosis. In the former case he’d go without punishment, in the latter he’d sit in jail. Sadly, it was not facts that determined his fate, but the public outcry that he’d get off scot-free if found psychotic—an outcry that led to a second and more “satisfactory” diagnosis.

But this whole reliance on formal diagnoses is nonsense. First find out if he did the crime, which he did. Then levy the punishment based on the factors delineated above. Here one needn’t lean on formal definitions, but on ways of treatment that would purge Breivik (if possible) of his malfeasance. Perhaps “psychosis” vs. “overvalued beliefs” could be a form of guidance here, but at least the criminal’s ultimate fate—hospital or freedom versus jail—wouldn’t depend on arbitrary categories.

Mass killer Anders Behring Breivik raises his arm in a Nazi salute as he enters the court room in Skien prison, Norway. REUTERS/Lise Aserud/



T. Rahman, P. J. Resnick, and B. Harry. 2016. Anders Breivik: Extreme beliefs mistaken for psychosis. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 44:1:2835. 


119 thoughts on “Mass murderers: mental illness or extreme ideology?

  1. Seems like this distinction between psychosis and overvalued ideas is a bit artificial, unless a biological basis for each can be determined. I wonder if anti-psychotic medications have any effect on those with overvalued ideas?

      1. It would go to the question of public safety, which is important in terms of deciding about incarceration. If you killed people while your brain was broken and a drug fixes it, then as long as you take the drug you aren’t a risk to others in the future (and thus a candidate for release). OTOH if you killed people while your brain was working fine, you will remain a public safety risk possibly indefinitely.

        1. Unfortunately, people having mental conditions often stop their medication against medical advice (I’ve seen it first-hand), so if an individual has committed a crime while his brain was broken from lack of medication, even if medication can fix it, I do not think he isn’t a risk to others in the future. I think this person also is a public safety risk indefinitely; the difference is – prison or heavily guarded mental health facility.

  2. Nah, no mental illness. This guy was fully cognizant and fully aware of what he was doing. It doesn’t take an “illness” to gather up all those weapons, to set up a plan for a massacre, etc. Such activities involve real thinking skills, twisted and diabolical as they are.

    But I have little respect for psychiatry, especially after reading L.J. Davis’s classic (and hilarious) Harper’s essay from 1997 on the DSM IV. The essay is called “The Encyclopedia of Insanity: A psychiatric handbook lists a madness for everyone.” I’d post the link here, but any reader can easily find it. I recommend it to all. It’s a brilliant essay with not a word out of place. I wish I had written it.

      1. All I’m saying is that this guy isn’t ILL and that “mental illness” is a loose concept that is bandied about all too easily.

        Do read that L.J. Davis essay to understand why psychiatry is largely a crock of [expletive deleted].

        1. You’re qualified to determine that a man is mentally ill or not by reading a few articles online?

          1. I’m qualified, as a humanist, to understand that problems in living are not “mental illnesses,” or “diseases” as some clowns in psychiatry like to say. A disease involves cellular pathology and the like, such that where the brain is concerned, there can only be disease, damage, or dysfunction. Does anyone really think that any of these three apply to Breivik? I certainly don’t.

            Do read that L.J. Davis essay. Tell me where he goes wrong in the piece. I’ve yet to find a word or sentence that’s out of place. Also, Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist, is very good on this subject, but without the sarcasm (to be fair, the only thing I’ve ever read by him is “Toxic Psychiatry”).

            1. I read about half of Davis’ essay and the author came across much like Sarah Palin did when she made fun of fruit fly research. The author apparently has no expertise on the subject and shows little interest in understanding what he expresses contempt for.

              I don’t think a layman can dismiss an entire branch of science as consisting of “clowns” just because doesn’t agree with a discipline he has little understanding of. My view is that the rationalist has a right to be unconvinced, but admit that he doesn’t have the knowledge to second-guess those more knowledgeable in the subject.

        1. “Thinking skills” is way too ambiguous of a term to say that any specific person is incapable of it. Likely almost anyone is capable of engaging in goal-oriented thought in specific circumstances. For instance, John Hinckley, the man who shot Reagan, was declared innocent due to insanity, yet arguably demonstrated thinking skills.

          1. In some cases, such as Hinckley’s, it is difficult to decide. And of course criteria vary from country to country. A lawyer I know complained: “They (i.e. Bulgarian prosecution) always try very hard to portray the defendant as sane. They say about my current client, he had motives for the crime so he is sane. Yes, he had motives but they weren’t motives of a sane person!”

            I am a lay person, neither a lawyer nor a psychiatrist, and my opinion is: if the perpetrator perceives the world correctly, he is sane. Once I shared a flat with a lady with schizophrenia who had decided to stop her meds (a typical behavior). She stayed away from the windows, telling me that there were Nazis outside eager to hurt her. It was actually good that she thought so, because the flat was on the 7th floor! If she had committed a crime, she would qualify for insanity.
            By this criterion, Andrea Yates is insane but Breivik is sane enough.

    1. + 1. I think many normal people who have good ideas but are too easy-going and disorganized to realize them, could envy his planning. E.g. his buying a farm to pose as a farmer and so to raise no suspicion by purchasing large quantities of nitrates.

  3. Extreme ideology is prevalent in art and sports and can be treated like religion. I know Trek fans, opera fans, and NFL fans, and Katniss and Harry fans who live for nothing more than the art or sport. Most, if not all, would not hurt a fly, but many are consumed, like addicted gamblers or alcoholics, and waste lives and money on their passion.

    Mental illness, mostly sociopathic or schizotypal personality disorders can push any person across a barrier. In general, a mix of this physiological feature is almost always a necessary condition for mass violence.

  4. Exactly. Sam Harris has it right. There but for fortune go any of us. We are all embedded in a vast, for all practical purposes infinite, web of cause and effect. We no more freely decide our actions independently of where we happen to be in that web, than we decide who our parents are and where we are born. The whole concept of retribution needs to be replaced by an evidence based system of local changes to the web of cause and effect as it involves the perpetrator. Norway seems to be getting closer to that idea than most other places in the world.

    1. There’s an argument that *some* state mandated retribution is worthy in that it reduces the liklihood of victims of crime, or their families, to extract vengeance once the criminal is released.

      There are some cultures where vendetta and honour are deeply ingrained and can spiral into a devastating set of tit-for-tat killings. Sometimes over a ‘trivial’ initial event.

  5. Daniel Dennett might ask if we can determine the degree of a criminal’s “sphexishness” an idea originated by Douglas Hofstadter and which plays a role in Dennett’s book defending compatibilist free will “Elbow Room”. It has to do with a creature’s level of self-correcting ability.

    Essentially, a sphexish being has less understanding of the semantic meaning of what it is programmed to do and is so simply determined that it lacks self-correcting mechanisms.

    So, are there degrees of sphexishness, degrees of lack of (compatibilist) free will? Certainly an alcoholic is more sphexish than other beings, etc.

  6. There is much to admire about the Norwegian justice system, where criminal behavior is viewed as a societal health issue rather than a moral issue. Our ‘retributive justice’ system in the US is embarrassingly primitive and ineffective. The approach to dealing with criminality should indeed be entirely pragmatic rather than based on emotion or ill-defined characterizations of mental illness.

    1. I also admire the Norwegian justice system. There are a couple of good YouTube videos about it if people are interested in finding out more.

      Ultimately, treating prisoners with respect and their time in prison as an opportunity for re-education and reform is better for the whole of society. It’s also cheaper in the long term because it is more effective.

      A lot of people forget that being deprived of your liberty is the punishment for the crime. They seem to want the additional retributive aspects that are present in many prisons where it’s a Lord of the Flies environment and bound to do more damage.

      Btw, the camp Brevik shot up was not a workers’ camp – I suspect that is an error in translation. It was a political camp attended by younger members of the Norwegian Labour Party (not sure of its proper name, but it’s roughly the equivalent of NZ, Aus, and UK Labour parties). For US that’s Labor, and ideologically similar to the left-wing of the Democratic party.

      1. Labor Party is an appropriate English Name for it (ex-pat Norwegian). The summer camp was run by its youth organization.

      1. I agree: compassion too, promoted by the understanding that we ourselves could have been in the perpetrator’s shoes, given the same genes and environment. However, I wonder if ‘too much compassion’ might negate any potential deterrent effect of incarceration. Arguably, there is some role for negative conditioning in behavior modification and rehabilitation.

        1. Hang on. Determinists don’t get to have it both ways. If we are entirely the product of genes and environment, then there is no meaningful sense in which “we ourselves could have been in the perpetrator’s shoes, given the same genes and environment”.

          Compassion is certainly warranted, on grounds of basic humanity, but not because of some dubious closet dualism that holds us to be somehow separable from the shoes we occupy.

  7. I would focus on the primary (bio-psycho) versus secondary (socially influenced) diagnostic criteria while keeping in mind that none of these assessments are necessarily mutually exclusive in principle. Audio and visual hallucinations combined with delusions as seen in psychosis are generally determined by abnormal dopamine receptor activity. However, ideology can certainly exacerbate any primary diagnosis since it acts as jet fuel for emotionally-driven irrationality. For example, ideology can create a structured framework for rationalizing behavior during psychotic episodes; but ideology itself can also be a form of mental illness (depending on how detached it is from reality).

  8. I don’t see any need to build deterrence into any criminal justice system. Simply being detained, put on trial, sequestered, and rehabilitated is going to be in and of itself the sort of thing nobody’s going to want to go through; if that’s not deterrence enough, nothing is.

    Rather, any effort that would have been put into making the lives of criminals miserable so as to convince other people they don’t want to commit crime…should instead be put towards education and job training, for those both in and out of prison. And, for that matter, providing medical services (including both physical and mental health) as well as a general safety net ensuring adequate food, shelter, and the like for everybody.

    One of the biggest challenges facing our society today is the persistence of the Puritanical mindset which insists that only by the sweat of one’s brow may one deserve one’s daily bread. Yet the industrial / robot revolution has obviated the need for hard work from everybody in society — to the point that there simply isn’t even enough make-work to keep everybody busy. The Puritans abhor the thought of “rewarding laziness” by simply sharing the bounty with everybody, even the idle…and, because they can’t conceive of how it could be possible that there could be a surplus, not a shortage, of workers, they’re unable to similarly conceive of how the surpluses are supposed to get their daily bread without brow-sweat.

    This will soon be the undeniable dominant sociological phenomenon…the largest single job sector today is the transportation industry, and we’re on the brink of automating human drivers out of existence. When former machinists and steelworkers can’t even get jobs driving the trucks and taxis they used to make, then what? They won’t even be able to flip burgers, either, because we’ve got a surplus of kids fresh out of college to do that — not to mention that even those jobs are being automated out of existence.

    That’s why the Basic Income is potentially so attractive. Give everybody a living wage, the rightful dividend from society’s investment in the infrastructure of automation. Sure, some, perhaps even many, will just sit at home and watch TV all day long. The Puritans will be infuriated, but it’s not like there’s work they could be doing instead. And plenty others will create art or invent new things they can’t afford the time to invest in today. Where work needs to be done, there’ll be plenty of people more than happy to do it either for the sake of doing something or for additional money to spend.

    It used to be common wisdom that “those crops ain’t gonna plant and harvest themselves,” and so on…but we’ve turned that common wisdom on its head, and we still haven’t caught up with the inevitable consequences.



    1. Very nice, though I would have to add, there is a lot of elbow grease needed to make people’s yards and homes and schools and communities to look nicer.

      Given the huge number of pickup trucks alone in America, we could redo everyone’s yard in a matter of years…into xeriscaped, ecological masterpieces.

      1. Yes — there’s lots that people can do to make the world a better place, more than enough to keep us all as busy as anybody wants. Our dilemma is that nobody wants to pay me to plant my own garden — which, when it comes right down to it, is what the Basic Income says. “Yes, I’ll go ahead and pay you to plant your own garden, or practice your music, or do whatever else you see fit to do that nobody else wants to pay you for.”




        1. I too am a supporter if the idea of a universal basic income.

          The people against it always see it as giving the money of those who work to those who don’t, and just can’t see any deeper than that.

          But, for example, if everyone had enough money to live the whole health of society would improve – physical, mental, societal, education and more. That would reduce many of the costs we have now – health, justice, insurance of many types etc.

          The US would find it more difficult to adjust than many Western societies because it was founded on the Protestant work ethic, and religion is still a big part of it. I just saw a new Gallup poll yesterday – 89% of US population still believes in God.

          1. We also face serious logistical problems with implementing such. Ever since Reagan, “tax cuts” have been the be-all end-all answer to any economic dilemma. Those tax cuts have disproportionately funneled money into the pockets of the already-rich, dramatically accelerating the divide between the 0.01% and the 99.99%. The 0.01% now control such a disproportionate amount of both the monetary wealth and political power of the States that what they think is in their own selfish best interests takes priority over all else. And the only place we’ll find the money to pay for a Basic Income is in the bank accounts of the 0.01%…and they should want to pay for other people to live with security and dignity, why, exactly?

            We’ve already seen this exact same dilemma play out with health care reform. Rather than do the blindingly obvious of expanding Medicare to cover everybody, Americans are now legally obligated to do business with the most corrupt and distrusted insurance industry in American history — with the same law guaranteeing 20% profits for the insurers! Madness.

            In practice, our best hopes for something like Basic Income here, short of revolutionary sociopolitical upheaval, would involve similar privatization. But where’s the profit to be made for the 0.01% from Basic Income? With Obamacare, they take a cut of every visit to the doctor and, especially, every pill sold — and it’s not like people have much of a choice when it comes to whether or not they should seek medical care. Where’s the middleman supposed to insert himself into Basic Income?




            1. I endorse everything you say here. Many of 1% fail to understand also that long term they would be better off with more income equality. Everyone having enough actually drives an economy, but many confuse the whole concept with communism and won’t even listen to the arguments let alone consider them.

              1. I think a lot of the problem is that it’s simultaneously true that capitalism is a fantastic way to drive innovation through competition…and that lots of facets of society don’t need innovation and are impoverished by competition. Capitalism is an indispensable hammer to have in the toolchest, but you need to use more than just hammers if you want to build anything.

                There’s also good reason to suspect that a Basic Income could potentially be even more effective at driving innovation than capitalism ever has been. Sure, there’d be insane-compared-to-today levels of “waste” for those who care only about innovation. A never-ending supply of really bad garage bands, for example. But you’d also get insane-compared-to-today total innovative output: creative geniuses who lack the financial and marketing ability to monetize their creative output adequately for survival could devote their time to creating instead of driving soon-to-be-roboticized taxis.




              2. It’s a development of way single-payer health care is better. In a society where quality health care is available to everyone, people don’t have to rely on being in a particular job, or having a good employer to ensure they/their families get looked after. So they can do work that makes them happy and they’re more productive and employment is more dynamic. There’re lots of other arguments too of course.

              3. Indeed, even today with Obamacare in full effect, I still know people who remain in jobs they’d much rather quit simply because they can’t find adequate and affordable options for their employer’s health insurance. It’s one thing to stay in a job you hate because it pays well and you don’t want to downsize your mortgage. It’s another thing entirely to stay in a job because you’d be bankrupted otherwise from paying for your (or your child’s) prescription medications.

                With Medicare for everybody, your boss can’t abuse you in the knowledge that you can’t leave. And with Social Security for everybody, you’d have the same degree of employer-independent flexibility.

                …but, of course, that puts the employees in a much more stable position than they’re in today, and the employers tend to hate the thought that they’d have less power to exploit their human liabilities^Wresources.




            2. “…and they should want to pay for other people to live with security and dignity, why, exactly?”

              Well I saw once rich bloke on the box say something like “When they come to my place in their thousands with burning torches I’ve got a problem.” He was speaking out against his own position, but in favour of his best interests.

          2. I do not think it will work, however. Several years ago, some people I know were laid off. They received benefits (or whatever this is called) for a year. During this year, they did not work. When the checks ceased, my friends found new jobs almost immediately.

    2. ….until the robots rise up. I, for one, welcome our robot overlords as I hope they look after me in my old age.

      1. No joke. It’s already thanks to the robots that I have clean dishes, clean clothes, clean floors…and the robots even help me cook my food.

        I would absolutely love a true laundry robot. Not a mere washing machine with a separate dryer stacked on top, but a closet-sized appliance that automatically does everything. Toss dirty clothes in its hamper and the next day find everything neatly cleaned and dried and ironed and folded and sorted into the proper drawer or hanger or whatever. Every so often, remember to pour a few gallons of detergent into its reservoir and let it worry about the rest.

        …and a dishwasher that automatically sorted and stacked the dishes for you would be really neat, too. Just pile them in the sink-equivalent and wake up the next day to find them on display in the cupboard where they belong.

        With enough of those types of robots, even somebody who’s nearly an invalid can happily live an independent life.




    3. “I don’t see any need to build deterrence into any criminal justice system. Simply being detained, put on trial, sequestered, and rehabilitated is going to be in and of itself the sort of thing nobody’s going to want to go through; if that’s not deterrence enough, nothing is.”

      That’s partly true, but I’d point out two things.

      First, deterrence is already built into to the system, pretty much as you describe.

      Second, some people become institutionalised to the extent that they don’t feel they can function outside of gaol, and commit further crimes to get back inside.

      “should instead be put towards education and job training, for those both in and out of prison.”

      Wrt “out of prison” that is an excellent point. I can’t imagine that it would be cheaper to keep someone in gaol than support them on the dole (or whatever) outside. And the best form of welfare support is a decent well paid job: it leaves employees with less time for criminal activity, gives them money, and has them paying taxes which support society. Perhaps more immediately beneficial is that it provides for food and shelter, and can provide self respect.

    4. I agree, Ben.
      I’ve also talked to police officers about it, and one point many of them make is that very few criminals commit a crime expecting to be caught. However, deterrence only works on those who expect to pay that penality – i.e., those who expect to be caught. Increasing the punishment for some crime just isn’t going to matter to someone who thinks they’re going to get away with it.

      Harsh punishment also incentivises crime sprees, because what’s the point of stopping after one if your punishment for your first act is going to put you away for life? As the old joke goes, if the punishment for being AWOL for an hour is death and the punishment for being a rebel is death, any soldier who is an hour late getting back to post will become a rebel.

      Lastly, I fully agree with Jerry’s main point that these sorts of determinations (of mental health vs. illness) can be put largely aside if the system is focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. You certainly want to know if someone is insane, because you want to treat the cause of the crime. But under a pragmatic system, the question “how long should we separate them from the population” has the same answer regardless of whether the criminal is sane or insane: “until we can be reasonably sure they won’t do it again.”

  9. My understanding is that professionals who deal with mental illness always look at the subject’s environment. Are they surrounded by a group of people reinforcing and encouraging the bizarre beliefs? Or have they simply gone out on their own? Is it the Loch Ness monster … or a spider with a human head under the bed?

    The former doesn’t mean they aren’t crazy, but the latter is a little tick on the box that they sure might be.

    1. Yeah…it’s a delicate balance. Mental health treatment needs to lean heavily on pragmatic functionality. If an individual is self-satisfied and not a threat to nor a burden on others, how well that person’s mental map lines up with objective reality doesn’t matter all that much. The problem is that there’s a pretty strong correlation between a solid grasp on objective reality and safe and non-burdensome self-satisfaction.

      If you have somebody who’s full-on delusional, singing (one-sided) love song duets with the faeries in the flower garden, and he’s happy and non-violent and not in danger of becoming destitute and so on…well, it’d be very hard, if not impossible, to morally justify administering any treatment of any form that he hasn’t given informed consent to.

      But then you’ve got all those middle managers with borderline personality disorder and the like wreaking havoc in their workplaces, and how’re we supposed to get them into effective treatment? A strong case could be made that, for the protection of those around them, society shouldn’t give them the choice to refuse treatment but remain in their jobs…but then you’ve got to come up with clear and consistent standards that would equally protect the harmless delusional people.

      And when you add in people with harmful delusions, those whose imaginary entities tell them to do terrible things? And when such delusions include huge swaths of the population, as is the actual case with the Abrahamic religions?

      There aren’t any good answers — at least, none I’m aware of. Certainly, the clinical setting isn’t the appropriate venue for solving the societal problem of mass religious delusion, but it could be the case for some limited individuals. What’s the difference between the crazy guy on the street corner who thinks he’s talking to Jesus and the pastor who weekly relates his own personal conversations with Jesus? What’s the difference between Jonestown, self-flagellating Opus Dei monks, and DAESH? If a loved one up and joined such a group, would it be right for you to get that person into treatment…and, if so, why or why not the rest of the group? Very difficult, murky territory.




  10. A few quick points (from a non-criminal lawyer):
    1. The idea that you first — and separately — try the accused to see if they “did the crime” glosses over the fact that state of mind (“mens rea”) is a central element of most crimes.
    2. Deterrence is arguably the most important function of the criminal system, and the psychologists you envision are not “experts” in deterrence. Leaving everything in their hands may reduce the effectiveness of the system. Concerns about what’s really best for the convicted/guilty may rightly be deemed secondary.
    3. Outcomes decided by a jury of one’s peers (or by a proper judicial official) may be essential to the public’s faith in the justice system. Do we really want a new punishment-regime bureaucracy?
    4. In a representative democracy, legislators specify the available and appropriate punishments.
    5. You dismiss any validity of retribution, but again the public’s faith in the justice system may require consideration of some punishment/retribution, even if experts conclude that it won’t have deterrent or reformative effect on a particular defendant.

    1. I know this will not get a good reception, but I will put it out for discussion anyway. Wrongly or not, the desire for retribution is widespread in humanity. I have read evolutionary arguments why revenge-seeking is inherent in humans. (No, that doesn’t make it “right”, but that is not my point.) Before civilization, and even after, retribution was a private affair, with the victims or their families murdering those who wronged them. Such feuds were often durable and wide-spread, and it is prevalent in the gang culture today. An important element in civilizing society was the socialization of retribution (i.e., the government takes retribution so you don’t have to) in order to contain such feuds. What happens if people are told the government doesn’t take retribution on their behalf anymore?

      1. The problem as I see it is that a retributive culture, like a religious culture, on balance makes things worse. Also people often think they’ll feel better when a perpetrator suffers, then discovers that’s not the case. Often some form of restorative justice, which includes genuine remorse (which may need education to engender) and an apology are better.

        The punishment is depriving someone of their liberty. No matter how good the conditions of incarceration, I wouldn’t want to lose my freedom.

        And is it a good idea for a society to indulge the idea of killing someone for committing a crime, no matter how horrific? Personally I think judicial killing is just as damaging to society in its own way.

        1. Yes, good points, but suppose revenge-seeking is innate and invariant to culture. It is present in all cultures and some animals, I understand. I have read that fMRI studies have shown that when subjects are asked to contemplate revenge, their brains’ “pleasure centers” are stimulated. (These days, I wish I had one.) Is it a good idea to pursue policies that go against human nature, or to try instead to make them work for society?

          BTW, in no way do I support our (US) dysfunctional justice system. Clearly, compared to other developed countries it leaves much to be desired. But I am not sure telling people their desire for retribution is wrong is the right way to go.

          As a matter of background, I should reveal that I am a victim–my beloved sister was brutally murdered, and I must say I do not appreciate virtue-signalers telling me how I should feel.

          1. I’m sorry about your sister.

            In Better Angels, Pinker suggests the advent of largely disinterested justice systems has contributed to the decline in violence over time.

            “Is it a good idea to pursue policies that go against human nature, or to try instead to make them work for society?”

            Well, rape is part of human nature, and I’d argue it is a good idea to pursue policies that prevent it, and that is unlikely to make it “work” for society. I think the bottom line is that it might depend on what you are talking about, and which approach delivers the greatest benefit(s).

            I’m inclined to agree that satisfying some sense of revenge is part of what legitimises a justice system in the minds of the broader public, but let’s not forget that what we are seeking after all is justice. No jurisdiction that I am aware of calls it a Retribution System.

            1. No jurisdiction that I am aware of calls it a Retribution System.

              Perhaps not, but much of the western philosophy of justice is based on lex talionis, hence the emphasis on mens rea in our judicial system (and PCC’s desire to change it.) I am not saying retribution is right (as Gandhi supposedly said, under talion most of us would be toothless and blind), just that it cannot be ignored in reforming the justice system.

            2. I think the rape analogy isn’t a very good one as it’s a form of deviant violence that I think most of us abhor where the desire for revenge is something, I’m willing to hazard a guess, is something most humans have experienced.

          2. You raise an interesting point that I hadn’t considered when it comes to revenge seeking being innately human. We’ve seen how systems that go against human nature, instead of working with human nature, fail miserably (communist states are an example because it turns out we humans do really like having our stuff to ourselves).

            So, if we pragmatically seek to avoid revenge because the science tells us that the person had no real choice to do as he/she did given brain anatomy, chemistry and experience, do we violate the science that tells us humans crave revenge? Is there a way to satisfy both compulsions?

            And, I do freely admit that I enjoy revenge. I don’t pursue it to the extent that sociopaths do but I do crave it and perhaps this is why I shouldn’t be in charge of crime and punishment activities as I know it’s not always the best way to proceed. I’ve come to accept this part of me as human and I don’t apologize for it.

            1. I do not think you shouldn’t be in charge of crime and punishment. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the idea of revenge. To me, abolition of this idea is nothing more than dehumanizing the victim. “That guy raped you, broke two or three of your bones and bit off the tip of your nose, but don’t worry, we’ll fix him. He did it because he had never been loved. We’ll be good to him to show what it means to be loved, and he’ll come out in 3 years as a new man and may become an excellent husband.”

          3. No, telling them they’re wrong to feel that way isn’t helpful, and I’m sorry if that’s the impression I gave, especially to someone who’s suffered as you have.

            I do think that if the justice system was more effective that it would help people who are victims. In the US, the current system seems to make things worse, while the Norwegian system seems to make things better.

      2. People feel betrayed by government, and I think for good reason.
        To me, very few criminals can be reformed. Some kid who stole because of drugs can be reformed if he is helped to come clear; but this is not easy to do. Another kid who has been very poor and stealing can be taught that he should respect other people’s property even if he has none, and can be trained to work and earn some property. Who else? A thief who attacks female pedestrians on dark alleys to steal their bags and jewellery? A murderer? A rapist? Because of slow justice, I have worked for years next to a pedophile. He was laughing in our faces. And he was laughing loudest in the faces of those who still sought something good inside him.

    2. If you look at the absurd incarceration rates in the US and the high US crimes rates, do you really think this amount of retribution is a good thing?

      Judicial systems are to slow for effective use of punishment. There is simply too much time between wrongdoing and punishment.

  11. If one day Breivik says “I am no longer a murderous Nazi. I have freed my mind of that sickness.” And every psychiatrist says “Yes, he is fine now.” Would you be okay with his being released into your community? If not, why not?

    1. That caricature of what actually goes on is as far off the mark as the one misdescribing Evolution as a tornado spontaneously assembling a 747 out of a junkyard.

      Criminals such as Breivik are going to be regularly and frequently observed and evaluated by lots of highly-trained and experienced professionals, including both those administering treatment (of whatever form) and those with some more distance. They know full well that he’s not going to simply wake up one day and no longer be a threat, just as Jerry knows that tornadoes don’t make 747s out of junkyards. Whether or not Breivik manages to successfully navigate the road to recovery remains to be seen, but there is overwhelming reason to be confident that, should he be released, he will represent a well-below-average (but, of course, still non-zero) threat to society.

      …and, of course, any release will be done in stages, with monitoring, and so on.




      1. Instead of characterizing my question, why did you not simply answer it? I said nothing about the process, so I cannot see how my comment can contain a caricature, and if he is released he has to be released into someone’s neighborhood, else how is he released. My question is whether we have sufficient confidence in any process to say “Yes, it is okay to release him, even into my neighborhood.”

        1. I would no more answer your question as you phrased it than I would answer should you ask me when I stopped beating my wife.

          If you are asking if I think that rehabilitation with an ultimate (but admittedly sometimes unreachable) goal of release is the proper function of the criminal justice system, then, yes, that is how I would reform criminal justice.




          1. Please explain how my question is equivalent to a loaded question like “When did you stop beating your wife?” It may be an uncomfortable question, but it contains no assumption that you are forced to affirm by answering, as does a loaded question. If you do not want to answer it, fine, but I see no reason for you to attack me for asking it.

            1. The wife-beating question presupposes that you have a wife whom you beat.

              Your prisoner release question presupposes utter gross incompetence on the part of those who treat and evaluate criminals.

              Would I trust complete incompetents to evaluate criminals for reintegration with society? Of course not. The only kind of idiot who would is the same kind of idiot who beats his wife.

              Would I trust professionals to treat prisoners and make reasonably trustworthy judgments about who is and isn’t a good candidate for reintegration and to handle reintegration with all reasonable due care and caution? Assuming a well-designed and regulated and supervised and managed system, of course.

              Let me turn the question around on you. Suppose you discovered that your middle-aged neighbor whom you’ve lived next to for for years was convicted of petty theft of a pack of gum when he was a teenager but has had a clean and exemplary record since. The phrasing of your question suggests you would be supremely suspicious of your neighbor after learning of his criminal record and wouldn’t trust him to return your hedge clippers. Would you really refuse to continue to loan garden tools to him after all those years?

              No — don’t bother answering. The question isn’t serious; I’m merely trying to illustrate why I’m refusing to answer your equally-loaded rhetorical non-question.




              1. I presupposed nothing of the sort. I can’t help what you read into it. If people are free to read unstated assumptions into questions then all questions can be loaded. And this topic is about a mass murderer, not a petty theft. I am asking what process and standard of confidence in that process a person would need in order to agree to release a person who has committed a horrific crime (no one cares about gum stealers) into one’s community (few people care if a criminal is released into Burkina Faso.) These are the sorts of concrete questions that would need to be answered in order to reform the justice system.

              2. I am asking what process and standard of confidence in that process a person would need in order to agree to release a person who has committed a horrific crime (no one cares about gum stealers) into one’s community

                And you asked that of a specific process — namely, if Breivik one day simply stated he had been cured — and standard — that the psychiatrists evaluating him would be idiotic enough to take him at his word.

                Your proposed process and standard is as prejudicial an over-the-top caricature of the real one, which I’ve repeatedly outlined, as the Creationist one of tornadoes manufacturing 747s from junkyards.

                (few people care if a criminal is released into Burkina Faso.)

                Seriously? You think nobody would care about deporting convicted criminals to the most troubled parts of the world? Is this because you think it’s a good idea? Is it because you think the people of Burkina Faso deserve to have our criminals dumped on them? Is it because you take pleasure in the thought of the suffering the criminals will experience there? And do you really think such a policy would produce positive results for anybody?

                For you to suggest such an absurdity, even in an off-the-cuff manner, tells me you’ve never even pretended to give the matter serious consideration, and you’re instead merely taking delight in being insultingly provocative.




        2. If your “question is whether we have sufficient confidence in any process to say…” then the exact nature and details of the process are of course essential, central, to whether we say yes or no.

          If he spends fifty years in gaol and becomes so weak an infirm he needs constant care and a walking frame, and he professes genuine remorse for his actions there could well be good case for releasing him. Right now I am not in a position to make that call though.

    2. To answer the spirit of your question rather than argue over how it was presented – yes, I am fine with the idea that murderers and rapists can serve their sentences and be released under proper supervision.

      People are capable of changing over time – everyone does it to varying degrees. In many ways I am not the person I was ten years ago, much less twenty – I have learned much, both from my mistakes and life in general, that has changed who I am cognitively (and physically the vast majority of my body has been replaced). The idea that someone can (not necessarily WILL, but CAN) change enough to not repeat past crimes is simply an expectation demanded by this reality.

      1. There was a case here in Washington State some years back in which a young high-school teacher fell in love with one of her students, had sex with him, and went to prison for it. A few years later she got out and moved in with her parents, precipitating a media frenzy. I recall one TV news reporter going around knocking on doors and sticking a mic in the face of whoever answered, shouting “How do you feel about having a sexual predator living up the street?” To which one savvy neighbor replied, “Her morals aren’t the problem. Yours are.”

    3. If psychiatrists’ opinions in these matters were accurate predictions, then maybe he could eventually be released. However, they are notoriously inaccurate. And Breivik’s words would mean nothing. Here we have, in a very aggravated form, the problem we see also in the “bathroom wars”: should the safety of vulnerable people be conditional on what someone SAYS. I think it should not.

  12. I think we have to look at the Norway system and others to improve the mess we have. It simply does not work. We are number one at putting people in prisons and it cost us a fortune. One of the worst parts of our system is the jail time done without trial because of this bail system. Can’t make bail so you stay in, sometimes for months and longer, with no way out. So then many cop to a plea, just to get out. It is nuts.

    On the big time mass killers such as Breivik, this reaches another level. Lets look at another – Bin Laden. Do we think jail time and reform are on the table with this guy? I don’t think so. How about the Oklahoma bomber, McVeigh? Again, probably no. At some point the best solution is to remove them from the living because to do otherwise is beyond understanding for most people. McVeigh’s single action killed 168 people and injured 680 others. Call it Domestic Terrorist or whatever fits, I don’t think you give this kind of crime a pass.

    1. I don’t think it is a matter of giving this sort of crime a pass. Personally, I wouldn’t be very troubled if those you mention were locked up for the terms of their natural lives, but maybe I could be convinced otherwise.

      Capital punishment however is about the most extreme punishment thinkable (and probably plays into the hands of some religious martyrs). After sentence is carried out the possibility of rehabilitation is extinguished, and what is far worse, so is the possibility of exoneration (in the light of new evidence for example). Therein is perhaps the greatest injustice of the death penalty.

      In most civilised countries prosecution of the death penalties is more expensive than imprisonment for life, at least partly because of extensive appeals processes (because the punishment is so extreme).

      I can imagine that in some circumstances capital punishment might seem justified, but given the downsides I don’t think those circumstances exist in modern western countries.

      1. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to have true life imprisonment without having also death penalty. In my country, after the end of communism, we were told that death penalty is barbaric, let’s abolish it, all of its goals can be achieved with life imprisonment without parole. I was all for it. Then, we were told that life imprisonment without parole is barbaric. Once on the way of better treatment of criminals, there is no apparent stop.

    1. People like Breivik are the reason I am 99% opposed to capital punishment rather than 100%. Some acts are so despicable that they warrant a forfeiture of existence. Providing him with food and shelter why so many are in want seems like a crime in itself.

      1. Perhaps, but the crime there isn’t feeding this guy, it’s that as a society we don’t care enough to feed all the others. There is plenty of food to go around, we just don’t make it go around.

  13. I like your analysis, Jerry, and agree with it. On the subject of retribution and deterrence, I think that the confinement necessary to comply with your objectives should be sufficient to achieve these ends.

  14. An essential aspect of mental and emotional health which lies along a spectrum is having resilience which is an adaptive process, not a trait. Because of how nature and nurture commingles differently in each one of us, it is a daunting though intriguing challenge to identify the environment needed to promote resilience during the formative years. Some thrive on hardship while others don’t so providing a gentle/safe interaction for all would be detrimental to others as would be the opposite approach.

    Since our brains don’t come with an operating manual, we are writing it as we go along. At least, drilling holes in craniums to let out demons or burning unruly women at the stake is no longer a common practice.

  15. I want to stick on the “Crazy or Obsessed” dilemma, because it’s one I’ve thought about, and I think it has value when applied to a full community.

    Now, that killer that attacked people because he wasn’t getting laid. That’s probably crazy. If you’re not having enough sex, then killing a bunch of people, then yourself, isn’t going to solve that. At best, he simply wanted revenge, but most of us have never wanted vengeance enough that we’d be willing to die for it.

    Now your average abortion clinic bomber is another story, because I don’t think they need to be crazy at all. Take the premise “a fertilized egg is a baby, and killing it is morally equivalent to killing a baby”, and tell me if the following thoughts don’t make sense…

    “It won’t stop… They just keep killing children. When this first happened in the 70s, I thought this madness couldn’t possibly continue… but it’s been 40 years. And they keep killing children.

    We’ve tried to do it properly. We’ve tried to make changes to the law… but it just doesn’t work. The laws don’t pass, or they get overturned, or they aren’t much more than small discouragements.

    I have no choice. Children are being killed every day, and the government stands by and doesn’t stop them.

    I don’t want to do this. Maybe those doctors all really believe that these ‘fetuses’ aren’t really children. Maybe they just don’t care. I don’t know, but even if they’re innocent… it’s better that they and I all die than more children. A few lives, even if all innocent, are less important than the hundreds of lives I will save by doing this.”

    That train of thought doesn’t bring up God, because it’s not necessary. It may happen that almost all anti-abortionists are Christians, but it’s not necessary. I find that train of thought to be perfectly rational, once you accept the starting premise.

    And I don’t find the starting premise all that irrational. When killing something is acceptable or not is a subjective moral judgement. After all, how many of us eat meat? But plenty of vegetarians we can respect would say that this is immoral.

    An abortion clinic bomber might be insane, and that could certainly drive them further, but I do not see a need to be insane to do that kind of thing.

    And this is valuable for evaluating a group. If someone’s insanity causes them to do kill a lot of people, then you don’t need to look at the motivations all that much, because other people who agree with them on the ideas, aren’t going to agree with them on the solution.

    But if the ideas are rational, as I think the hypothetical abortion bomber is… then there’s no reason that any given anti-abortionist wouldn’t be willing to make the sacrifice.

    Of course, most anti-abortionists don’t do this, and that is a strike against my idea. But it’s interesting, and perhaps a little disturbing, to look at such an extremist behavior and see how, with just once slight change in what we believe, we might endorse such behavior.

    1. I think there are many things like this where people genuinely believe they’re right and it’s easy to see things from their pov.

      Murder though is not a rational response. It will not stop abortion, and will not garner support for the cause.

      Anti-choice campaigners, though mostly Christian, don’t rely that much on religious messaging when they make their case. They use arguments such as whether the foetus feels pain, or the medical safety of women – i.e. they attempt more rational arguments.

      Though they use religious arguments amongst themselves, they don’t go to the Supreme Court saying, “Jesus doesn’t like it.” Much as they might believe that, they still recognize it’s not a rational argument.

    2. Where your “perfectly rational” bomber goes off the rails is his utter failure to consider the possibility that his starting premise might be incorrect. He’s assigned that belief 100% certainty, so that no amount of evidence (“those doctors all really believe that these ‘fetuses’ aren’t really children”) can budge him from it. As a result, he’d rather become a mass murderer than have to change his mind.

      That may not be crazy in a clinical sense, but it’s not what I’d call rational.

    3. I would say that you anti-abortionist lacks perspective and understanding.

      The US has (by many reports) justice systems that a) don’t work that well, and b) condone the death penalty. Plenty of innocent people killed there.

      Furthermore AFAIK far more foetuses are naturally aborted (or maybe god is a busy abortionist). If prevention of abortion were the real goal then putting women on the pill would be far more effective (fewer pregnancies result in fewer spontaneous abortions). The best prevention of abortion is contraception, not an AR15.

      As for the relationship between religions and opposition to abortion, I’ve read that originally most churches in the US were quite comfortable with Roe v. Wade, but it was Falwell and his mates who later whipped it up into an issue to mobilise christians to vote. I am unaware of any biblical sanctions against abortion.

      And I’ve got to ask, does one guy with an assault rifle or two really think he is going to end abortion nationwide by killing everyone at one abortion clinic? That is a serious delusion.

      It may appear rational thinking, but only rational in severe ignorance of the anti-abortionist.

  16. “He does not think there is anything the matter with him
    one of the things that is
    the matter with him
    is that he does not think there is anything
    the matter with him
    we have to help him realize that,
    the fact that he does not think there is anything
    the matter with him
    is one of the things that is the matter with him.”

    R.D. Laing

  17. A complicated business. In a post free will world our current system is broken. If it’s all basically programming then it would seem that aberrant behavior (let’s define that as harmful to self, others or society) might fall into one of at least 4 categories:

    Reactive, antisocial (or criminal), biochemical, or predatory

    Reactive (crimes of passion or opportunity) isn’t logically served by classic punishment but rather restitution to the victims and education to provide tools to prevent recurrence. Most people are vulnerable to this class of crime in the right circumstances.

    Antisocial crimes could also involve restitution and education tailored at social contracting, skills and work training. In place of lengthy prison sentences we might consider similar periods of social supervision and engagement for non-violent criminals.

    Biochemical/structural – Classic mental illness such as Schizophrenia or altered behavior secondary to trauma. Punishment for these individuals should probably be relegated to that dustbin of history in a just and compassionate society. Many of these individuals will likely require a life-long commitment from society to provide appropriate resources and supervision.

    Predatory – here’s where it gets tough. True predators and I include terrorists and criminal kingpins in this class(a subclass of predators are the true monsters, the Charlie Manson’s of the world). If we believe that free will is essentially non-existent then it logically follows that individuals who exhibit predatory behavior are fundamentally different from the majority of people. There are reasonable doubts that such individuals can be educated or re-trained to rejoin the herd. Separation from society for longer or even indefinite periods for this group is likely to be the only option that provides adequate safeguards.

  18. Yes, the DSM has changed many times in my life time. There are disorders in there that didn’t exist … that many years ago.

    Not to belittle your suggestion (far from it), but the idea of first trying someoney to see if she/he is guilty regardless of her/his reasons seems so obvious I can’t believe we have not done it that way all along.

  19. “My scheme, then is this: first try the accused to see if he/she did the crime.”

    The problem with this is that a pre-trial evaluation of mental illness which you are referring to, as opposed to a not guilty by reason of mental illness defense in a trial, is simply a determination as to whether someone is mentally capable of standing trial. Whether they understand the charges against them, and are mentally capable of taking part in their defense. You can’t try the accused to see if they’ve done the crime if they are incapable of defending them self against the charges.

      1. “Why not, if there are enough reliable witnesses to indicate that he did it?”

        Our entire justice system is based on the principle that accused have the right to a defend themselves. If they are incapable of doing so it doesn’t mean you free them, it simply means you lock them up until they can, if ever.

        1. If they are incapable of doing so it doesn’t mean you free them, it simply means you lock them up until they can, if ever.

          …and what happens when you’ve cured mentally ill purported-criminals to the point that they no longer pose a threat to society? You’re going to punish them for something they weren’t even themselves truly responsible for in the first place? What if the maximum sentence for the crime is three years, but the person still hasn’t been cured nor tried after five years? You still haven’t even legally established guilt.

          If a person is determined to be legally incapable of self-representation, then that person needs to be made a ward of the state and have a suitable guardian appointed. It then falls upon that guardian to defend the accused as vigorously as if the guardian were in jeopardy.

          And with a criminal justice system devoted to rehabilitation, not vengeance nor retribution nor deterrence, lots of the objections quickly vanish.

          …of course, our privatized prison system is a serious money-making industry for the owners, and it’s in their parasitic best interests to lock up as many people as possible for as long as possible and to spend as little as possible on their wellbeing while incarcerated. That’s the exact opposite of what we actually want as a society, but the “privatize everything” parasites are exactly that — parasites. And we as a society have yet to develop an adequate immune response to them.




          1. Lot’s of questions I don’t know the answers to, thought I certainly don’t support trying someone who is incapable of putting forth a defense, and I’m sure we have procedures to deal with them since that’s how our system currently operates. My point was only, contrary to what PCC seemed to be saying, that the initial psychiatric examination is not done in lieu of a trial it’s done to determine whether the person is mentally fit to stand trial.

            1. “If a person is determined to be legally incapable of self-representation, then that person needs to be made a ward of the state and have a suitable guardian appointed.”

              How is the guardian going to know they circumstances that resulted in the crime. How is the guardian going to know that while the crime was being committed the accused was at a basketball game, and was filmed on the jumbo-tron. The reason the person should be of sound mind isn’t simply so he can instruct his attorney, it’s so he can take part in his defense. Something no one else can adequately do. The right to testify in his defense in your own defense, or question your accusers is impossible if you are incapable of doing so.

              1. The reason the person should be of sound mind isn’t simply so he can instruct his attorney, it’s so he can take part in his defense.

                A really big part of the problem is that people need to defend themselves against the State in the first place. Make the criminal justice system entirely non-punitive in the first place and many of these problems resolve themselves.

                For example, once you’ve determined that somebody is dangerously mentally ill, you quarantine that person and begin treatment. The actual acts the person did or didn’t commit are irrelevant to anybody but the professionals providing treatment.

                You’d of course need oversight and patient advocates and the like to keep the system honest, and objectively assigning likelihoods to the misdeeds somebody is accused of is going to be an essential part of that. But the focus (in this mental illness example) is on healing the ill so they may again rejoin society as productive members. Anytime “defense” is a principle part of such a system, things have gone horridly awry.




    1. You’re conflating two separate (albeit related) inquiries here, Mike — the insanity defense and competency to stand trial. Both usually involve psychiatric evaluation. But the first concerns a defendant’s mental state at the time the offense was committed (viz., whether he had the capacity to understand the nature and likely outcome of his acts), while the second concerns the defendant’s mental state at the time of trial (viz., whether he is capable of communicating with and assisting counsel in the presentation of his defense).

      The two inquiries frequently arise as to a single defendant, but can also come up independently of each other, and result in much different remedies.

  20. My scheme, then is this: first try the accused to see if he/she did the crime.

    You’re talking about abandoning centuries of Anglo-American law here. Our entire criminal justice system is based on the concept of “blameworthiness.” That concept turns in large measure on the mental state (or “mens rea,” to use the formal Latin term) of the person who has committed a proscribed criminal act (the “actus reus” to again employ the Latin).

    Take, for example, a motorist who runs over a child. Our legal system prescribes much different outcomes depending upon whether the motorist ran over the child intentionally, or recklessly, or negligently during a moment of inattention, or whether the motorist was exercising all due caution when the child darted out from behind a parked car. (The law regarding the insanity defense essentially provides that those who are incapable of forming the requisite culpable mental state are not blameworthy for their acts.)

    None of this is to say you are necessarily wrong. Indeed, what you’re proposing may be the basis for a more enlightened scheme. But recognize that you are, in essence, calling for a wholesale rewriting of our criminal codes from scratch, not simply a tinkering with our existing system of criminal justice.

  21. As someone who is intimately aware of mental illness, I wish to start with a basic factoid that most crimes are not committed because of mental illness itself. I’m not implying that you believe that, either. There are specific forms of mental illness that has a higher chance of yielding violence then others.
    In those cases where mental illness is involved the condition is usually schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders and psychosis of some sort. Anxiety would be low on the list because those that suffer from anxiety disorders usually exhibit avoidance behaviors. This paper looks very interesting, but I have a question. When does a belief become a psychiatric delusion? Hopefully, this paper will answer that

  22. It bothers me when the knee jerk reaction to a crime is that the perpetrator is mentally ill. A lot of people suffering from mental illness are no danger to others and this includes schizophrenics and people who suffer from psychotic episodes.

    I’m not suggesting that no mentally ill person ever harmed people in the history of humanity, but I suspect it’s acceptable to blame the mentally ill because there’s still a significant stigma around mental illness.

    1. I agree with you. Most mentally ill people are harmless and need our compassion rather than lumping them together with monsters like Breivik. On the other hand, Breivik’s mental processes are clearly damaged. Does he deserve our sympathy? Probably his brain has been infected with a malevolent meme, like those of jihadist fanatics. People who are mentally ill for some chemical reason perhaps can be saved. Someone like Breivik, I don’t know, but I would not take a chance on him even if those who claim he is rehabilitated swore on a thousand bibles (J) that he was safe. I would be quite willing to pay the taxes needed to sequestor him for life.

      1. However, sociopaths are not considered mentally ill either and some are very dangerous. You can be dangerous because of the way your brain works (is there anything else that would make one behave a certain way since we are our brains) but not be mentally ill.

      2. Someone like Breivik, I don’t know, but I would not take a chance on him even if those who claim he is rehabilitated swore on a thousand bibles (J) that he was safe.

        And what expertise based on what information and evidence qualifies you to pass such judgement? Why should your unthinking emotional reaction in criminal matters deserve any more weight than a creationist’s unthinking emotional reaction to Evolution?



    2. “I’m not suggesting that no mentally ill person ever harmed people in the history of humanity, but I suspect it’s acceptable to blame the mentally ill because there’s still a significant stigma around mental illness.”

      I think this is part of it, but I also think that a lot of people have bought into the notion that murder is inherently an irrational act, that no one whose mind is working properly would ever jduge killing someone to be the proper course of action, so anyone doing so must have some kind of mental issue that causes it. These people tend to think that humans are inherently good, so if we do something bad then there must be something wrong with how you’re working.

      I also think this ties into a sort of other-ization of criminals – it is astoundingly easy to find people referring to criminals as “those people”, as if they are some other branch of humanity that has willingly given up its right to civil treatment because they committed a crime – often regardless of what the crime is.

      1. Yes, I think it almost comes down to, in its more extreme incarnations, that anyone who doesn’t think like I think must have something not working correctly in their brain. I see a trend to classify humans more and more. Some people are just assholes, not sociopaths or they may be emotionally stunted and think that yelling at you because someone else put them in a bad mood, is an acceptable way to behave/they couldn’t control how they behave.

        The important thing to understand is everyone has the same hardware and software, but how it’s configured can differ greatly and some of us have a lot of bugs in ours. This can cause disaterous outcomes or social annoyances and everything in between but not every bug is a system wide defect with an easily discernible root cause malfunction.

  23. As stated above no one single person is in control. The push and pull of society, the biology of life produces the good bad and ugly. So what?
    Could Breivik been held and I pause for a moment, in a safe place if discovered early? given that’s where he is now, only it is for our sake not for his.
    Sadly no, we are always waiting at the bottom of the cliff.
    The idea of a justice system based on enlightenment values is before it’s time but well worth pushing and I am for it if applied how The demise of religion might help the process, they just love retribution, the manipulation of souls for the afterlife.
    Yeah well, we know the brain is a complex organ but I could see a day when predictions could be made based on gene, brain activity, real world behaviours using observations and technology to mediate future behaviours of individuals.
    It would be a start to being at the top of the cliff.

    1. sorry, did not quite finish this statement..
      I am for it if applied how the Prof(E) has proposed above. It starts to show we are developing a more rounded and sound way of dealing with runaway brain programmes, more civilised if you will, that have resulted in harm and anti social behaviours.

  24. I’m somewhat skeptical of the claim that our justice system can be improved by divorcing it from contact with any systematic science of abnormal psychology (“no formal diagnosis”). If you want your correctional therapists to do their jobs effectively, they’re going to need some sort of theoretical framework for categorizing bad behavior and its causes.

  25. ‘All should be treated, and, of course, all will require treatment tailored to their “disorder.”’

    Clockwork Orange (the movie) comes to mind.

    Well, hardly anything has no adverse effects, and we shouldn’t avoid things just because of adverse effects, it is a matter of assessing how bad those effects are, whether they outweigh the positive effects, and what measures can be implemented to counter those adverse effects.

    I think it is preferable that prisoners be rehabilitated, I think it probably costs society and those prisoners less in the long term. We really want people to be as productive as possible, partly to be able to support social welfare (including rehabilitation programs).

    Since crime is often associated with poverty, might it not be Norway’s welfare policies that also contribute to lower recidivism?

  26. Wow! This is one of those mind-pushing discussions that makes this site one of the best. Another I liked was the one about male mitochondria.

    Keep ’em coming!

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