Severe Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities should not be executed due to their diminished culpability.
However, it remains legal to execute people who suffered from severe mental illness (SMI) at the time of the offense.  While our understanding of mental illness improves every day, it is surprising that people with severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, can still be subject to the death penalty in Virginia.
I firmly believe that anyone who commits a crime should face very serious consequences for it.  However, in light of our increased understanding of the severe impairments brought by mental illness, I believe that life in prison without parole is the appropriate punishment for those with documented severe mental illness at the time of their crime.
Severe mental illness is characterized by psychotic episodes, which affect one’s ability to exercise rational judgment. A severe mental illness can also lead to wrongful conviction; several studies show a link between mental illness and false confession.
In addition, the money saved by not sentencing someone to death in these cases could be used to solve cold cases, train and staff police forces, fund victims’ services, or expand mental health programs.
Many organizations agree that the time for reform has come. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the American Bar Association have all expressed their opposition to the use of the death penalty for those with severe mentally illness.
In our state, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Virginia, Virginia Counselors Association, Mental Health America of Virginia, the disability Law Center, VOCAL and the National Association of Social Workers Virginia Chapter have endorsed legislation to exclude those with severe mental illness from the death penalty.
I find it unconscionable that the Commonwealth can and does execute people who suffer from severe mental illness. Severely mentally disabled defendants are not the “worst of the worst” for whom the death penalty is intended, and no purpose is served by their execution.
While it is difficult to know how many people would be affected by the SMI exemption in Virginia, the requirement of the presence of a severe mental illness with significantly impaired capacity at the time of the offense ensures that this would remain a limited exemption. Mental Health America estimates that 5 to 20 percent of inmates currently on death row in the United States have a severe mental illness.
The legislation sponsored by Del. Jay Leftwich (HB 1522) has a restrictive definition that includes only the most serious forms of mental illness.  Many diagnoses — and many people with any given diagnosis — would not meet the requirements of this proposed legislative exemption.
It is time that Virginia stops sentencing people with severe mental illness to death.  Life in prison without parole is a more appropriate sentence for offenders with SMI who have a diminished culpability for their actions. 
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