The Insanity Defense

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When someone commits a crime, he or she may use mental illness as a defense. This is called an insanity plea or insanity defense. What the insanity defense does is try to give the alleged perpetrator a fair trial. At least in extreme cases, society agrees with this principle. The problem is where do we draw the line. Under what circumstances is a person considered insane, and when are they not? The trouble with the insanity defense in recent years is the assumption that virtually all criminals have some sort of mental problem. One important point is that the crime itself, no matter how appalling, does not demonstrate insanity. Today, the insanity defense has become a major issue within the legal system. If the defendant is clearly out of touch with reality, the police and district attorney ordinarily agree to bypass the trial and let the defendant enter a mental hospital. On the other hand, if the defendant has no serious signs of mental illness, the defense attorneys will not attempt an insanity defense. This is because they know that juries are reluctant to accept it. Basically, the only way for a lawyer to prove his client’s insanity is to try to project what his client was thinking (or not thinking) at the time that the crime was committed. This is usually done by enlisting the testimonies of a psychologists or psychiatrists, who are known as “expert witnesses.” Both legal and mental health professionals have long struggled to establish a clear and acceptable definition of insanity. Insanity is a legal term, not a psychological or medical one. The Sarasons prefer to use the term “maladaptive behavior” instead of insane or insanity. Maladaptive behavior is, “behavior that deals inadequately with a situation, especially one that is stressful” (5). Adaptation is the way people balance what they do and want to do, and what the environment/community requires of them. Successful adaptation depends on a person’s stress (situations that impose demands on him or her), vulnerability (likelihood of a maladaptive response), and coping skills (techniques that help him or her deal with difficulties/stress) (5). Consider the recent school shootings as an example. Students who are teased and bullied are experiencing stress. Some students have low vulnerability and choose to talk about the situation with a parent or teacher, which is a good coping strategy.

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