Across the country, more and more conservative coalitions are pushing for legislation exempting the mentally ill from the death penalty. To date, Idaho doesn’t have such a law on the books, but we should. Roughly one in three inmates in Idaho prisons are in need of mental health care. With only four mental health facilities statewide, those who suffer from mental illness are limited in their access to treatment, and worse yet, our state allows these people to be sentenced to die, despite their debilitating mental disorders, including schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and delusional disorder. These mental illnesses inhibit an individual’s ability to exercise rational judgment, or recognize the nature, consequences or wrongfulness of their behavior.
Many who suffer from mental illness in Idaho only access care once they’re in a crisis because there is a severe lack of psychologists and treatment facilities for the mentally ill. Consequently, many of these individuals only receive the care they need once they find themselves in the ER, or worse yet, in jail.
“When we wait until someone with mental illness commits a crime before we take action, we’re not only doing them a disservice by housing them amongst a criminal population, but at $88 per day, it is some of the most expensive housing we could put them in,” says former Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney.
Because of the lack of preventive care available for the mentally ill, Idaho’s criminal justice system has become the state’s primary mental health care provider, and according to recent research, roughly 30 percent of Ada County inmates suffer from some serious form of mental health disorders and illnesses. Many of these people end up in prison precisely because of their mental illness.
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Idaho is one of four states that does not have an “insanity plea.” This means that defendants with serious mental illness are left vulnerable to adverse sentencing penalties in our current court system. Individuals with intellectual disabilities, such as people with an incredibly low IQ, are exempt from the death penalty under Idaho law, but the same judgment impairment suffered by those with intellectual disabilities is shared by those with severe mental illness. Thus, it follows that the severely mentally ill should receive the same protection under the law. But unfortunately, that’s not the case in Idaho.
Those suffering from severe mental illness need mental health care, not a death sentence. In order to protect our communities, to provide effective solutions to mental health issues, and to efficiently spend taxpayers’ money, Idaho should exempt the mentally ill from the death penalty. By establishing such an exemption, Idaho can more efficiently use its precious resources on policies that offer real solutions to mental health issues that are plaguing our state.
Katherine Dwyer was a recent Charles Koch Institute Communications Fellow with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a Project of Equal Justice USA. Dwyer has spent much of the past year residing in Idaho.