Insanity Offense

Saturday, April 22, 2006

THE CASE of Eric Michael Clark, argued before the Supreme Court this week, presents an important question concerning how far states can go in limiting the ability of mentally ill defendants to plead insanity. The justices, however, will not examine the far more important problem that Mr. Clark's case and countless tragedies like it present. The public health and legal systems prevent desperately sick people from getting treatment before they commit crimes and then treat them as criminals after they do.

Mr. Clark was a promising boy through his 16th year, when paranoid schizophrenia began to destroy his life. His parents tried to get him help as he deteriorated. They hospitalized him briefly. They tried to persuade him to get further help. After an arrest, they pushed prosecutors to press minor charges against him while he was still a juvenile to get him into the mental health system; authorities decided to wait until he turned 18, so they could try him as an adult. When his deterioration accelerated, his parents frantically sought to have him committed. But getting someone committed is hard -- way too hard -- and before they could do it, he had shot and killed police officer Jeffrey Moritz. Now an upstanding law enforcement officer is dead, and someone who should have been a patient is a criminal.

The Supreme Court's interest in the case is limited to the legitimacy of Arizona law, which sets an implausibly high standard for findings of "guilty but insane." There is no dispute that Mr. Clark, who believed his parents to be aliens, was deeply psychotic at the time of the killing, but the Arizona courts found him sane. The question before the court is not whether the verdict makes sense, but how much leeway Arizona has in setting the rules.

But this legal question, however important, comes into play only after the system has failed. The real question should be why people like Mr. Clark's parents so often cannot get help before it's too late. The answer, unfortunately, is as glaring as it is intractable. Politicians don't like paying for care for the critically mentally ill. And the courts, in their zeal to protect the rights of the mentally ill, often neglect their welfare; the courts will generally not allow authorities to hold anyone for treatment in the absence of evidence that he poses a threat, evidence not always available before somebody gets hurt.

Instead of taking responsibility for sick people -- some of whose very illnesses prevent them from making informed choices -- our system "frees" them to homelessness or delusions until they do something for which it can exact revenge.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company