Today’s question comes from Yvette. She wrote: “As we see the mentally handicapped, day in and day out commit crimes that usually the same would not — how do you best advise us as a society, to forgive? We have our laws– but how do we not have hatred and bad wishes towards the ones that have created so much hurt on their own. And does God forgive these crimes? I mean assuredly God knows everybody’s demons– and knows their limits to fighting those demons.”
Thanks for the question. It’s a complicated one on many levels, so let me throw out a few initial thoughts and then invite you into the conversation.
Let me begin by saying, the vast majority of people living with mental illness do NOT commit crimes. I say this out of the gate, because if you watch certain television shows and movies, you would think that a high percentage of violent crime is committed by those living with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and other conditions such as bipolarity. That’s simply not the case.
With that said, let me move on to those instances where a person living with mental illness does commit a crime.
How we handle those situations has become increasingly complicated over the years. In the days following John Hinkley’s attempt to take President Reagan’s life back in the early 1980’s, there have been a rash of instances where criminal defense attorneys have tried to get their clients off using a “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense. This has created the impression that mental health issues are simply a tool that can be used to manipulate the legal system in order to get a guilty person off. That’s too bad.
So how can we deal with things in a healthier way?
I would begin by suggesting our society do a better job helping individuals and families better understand mental health issues. This would help society decrease the stigma associated with mental illness and increase the likelihood that parents would get early assessment and intervention for children who have a mental illness. It could also increase the likelihood that the affected individuals would get the help they need in order to manage their illness.
Of course one of the greatest challenges involves getting individuals to STAY on their medication. It has been great to see a state like California pass Laura’s Law that helps family members of those living with a mental illness take action to ensure their adult children get the help they need (even if the individual living with a mental illness is resistant to treatment).
We should also take steps to limit access to dangerous weapons (i.e. guns) by those who live with reality-altering illnesses.
Those are some of the most important preventative steps we can take. What do we do when our prevention efforts fail and an individual with a mental illness commits a crime?
We give them an appropriate consequence for the crime. Sounds simple enough. The challenge then becomes interpreting what “appropriate” means.
Since an individual living with a mental illness has a different way of processing things than others, I do not believe the individual with a serious mental health issue should be put in the general population when incarcerated. I also believe the individual should have access to the services they need (i.e. medications and support services) in order to manage their illness. I would be leery about shortening their sentences, however, as this would encourage some defense attorneys to try to use claims of mental illness simply to get their clients a shorter sentence.
One of the most challenging aspects of this conversation has been whether or not a person living with a mental illness should be eligible to receive the death penalty. I am not a fan of the death penalty as a whole, so needless to say I’m DEFINITELY not supportive of putting to death offenders who live with a mental illness.
Before I leave the topic, I want to take on a question that you raised that has more explicitly spiritual dimensions: the issue of forgiveness as it relates to offenders. And in doing that, I will move beyond the issue of offenders living with mental illness to the broader issue of offenders in general.
I believe that every single human being is a beloved and sacred child of God. That status does not change during a person’s lifetime no matter what.
That last statement is very counter-intuitive for us. The human part of us tells us that a person’s value is contingent on what she or he does. We can love and value a person if they make good choices and hate or despise an individual if they do bad things. That human view is so ingrained in us that it seems impossible for us to get around that. That’s why so many religious folks feel completely justified in speaking in horrible ways about offenders.
Thankfully, God’s perspective is much larger than ours. God can see sacred value and worth in individuals that no human being can see. One example I like to use here is the Apostle Paul. Acts 22:20 tells us that when individuals in the community stoned Stephen to death (making Stephen into the first Christian martyr), that the Apostle Paul was present and held the coats of those stoning Stephen. By today’s legal standards, that would make Paul an accessory to murder. God saw things differently, however, and was able to use Paul to accomplish amazing things that helped transform the world.
So if every individual (including horribly violent offenders) is a beloved and sacred child of God, does that mean we get rid of prisons and consequences?
No. I believe we can still see an individual as a beloved and sacred child of God and STILL give the individual appropriate consequences for their harmful behavior. What I do believe is that our faith means are called to surrender our hatred toward the individual offender.
As a society we constantly confuse a person’s behavior with a person’s value or worth. I don’t believe God makes that mistake. I believe that God sees each individual as a wonderful sum total of their thoughts, their behaviors, the potential, and their possibility. And in God’s eye, the possibility of transformation ALWAYS exists. My faith calls me to believe that too.
If we as a society learned how to give appropriate consequences while still helping the individual with their sacred value and worth, I believe we would have a much higher rate of rehabilitation in ways that matter most.
So what about you? What do you think?
And keep the questions coming please!