The state Senate last week passed a bill sponsored by Senator Frank Padavan, a Bellerose Republican, that allows a verdict of "guilty but mentally ill" for cases in which jurors believe a defendant might have been mentally ill at the time a crime was committed but should still be held responsible for his or her actions. We hope the Assembly will also pass the bill and that Governor George Pataki will speedily sign it into law. This is legislation whose time has certainly come.
Juries are often reluctant to reach verdicts of "not guilty by reason of insanity" because they fear defendants will be back on the streets again after a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital and will not be held responsible for their actions, Padavan noted. Found guilty, such defendants serve prison time without receiving desperately needed psychiatric treatment.
"By creating a verdict of guilty but mentally ill, a jury would be able to establish that a defendant's mental illness is great enough to require treatment, but not so great as to relieve him or her of guilt for a crime," Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said in endorsing the measure. Under the provisions of the bill, a jury would be required to find that a defendant was suffering from mental disease or defect and was also guilty of a crime. The plea of guilty but mentally ill could be accepted only with a prior hearing on the issue of mental illness. Defendants found guilty or who pleaded guilty but mentally ill would be sentenced pursuant to the law pertaining to any defendant convicted of the same crime and be remanded to a designated psychiatric center or correctional facility with a mental health unit. Should the mental illness abate, the defendant would then remain in prison for the duration of the sentence.
The bill will now be sent to the Assembly, which on several prior occasions has failed to pass it. We hope that this time will prove otherwise. "I urge the Assembly to pass [the bill] and help ensure that our criminal justice system protects the public and gives mentally ill criminals the treatment they need and deserve," Padavan said. We heartily agree. Putting mentally ill people in a general prison population is barbaric. Letting mentally ill criminals out on the street to commit more crimes is unacceptable and an intolerable threat to public safety. The Padavan bill can meet the needs of mentally ill criminals and the public both. It should be signed into law as soon as possible.