Wednesday, May 14, 2008

NAMI Advocate Speaks about the Death Penalty

The Equal Justice Edition, a newsletter from Equal Justice USA, features the following quote from Kathleen Bayes, whose husband struggled with mental illness. Bayes is the Executive Director of NAMI Fort Wayne, in Indiana.

"The death penalty is often given in cases of particularly violent or baseless crimes. Such crimes are often committed by people who suffer from serious brain disorders. These are not crimes of choice. When such people are medicated and find out what they have done, they are as horrified as anyone else would be.

This very well could have happened to my husband. Today, after treatment, he is a brilliant, kind, and gentle person, just as he was before he became ill. It is the worst nightmare of NAMI families to have a loved one hurt someone and face the death penalty. What the capital punishment system does to a family is horrific, with the torment of publicity and appeals that last for years and years -- all for something the person would not have done if they were in their right mind.

The failure of our society to treat people with mental illness is a disaster. As we have closed our state mental hospitals around the country, jails and prisons have taken over, becoming in effect our country's largest mental institutions. We are criminalizing mental illness, when we should be treating it."

Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) is a national leader in the movement to halt executions. It works state by state to train and empower grassroots leaders to advocate for a more fair and humane criminal justice system. Go to to learn more about the organization and to sign up for the Equal Justice Edition newsletter.


dudleysharp said...

"Mental illness" is a very broad category.

There are mental illnesses which may provided reasons not to punish.

However, the overwhelming majority of mental illnesses and the level of that mental illness do not excuse criminals from their crimes.

Interesting that this was left out.

Kristin Houle said...

Hi Dudley,

I agree that "mental illness" is a broad category and that most mental illnesses do not excuse criminal behavior. There are some situations, however, where the symptoms of a severe and persistent mental illness may lead to or serve to explain that behavior.

For the purposes of this blog, and for our work on the intersection of the death penalty and mental illness, we are focusing on "severe and persistent mental illness," (SPMI) which is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as "a diagnosis that includes schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder. Approximately 2.6 percent of the U.S. population is affected with SPMI."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines "serious mental illness" (SMI) as diagnosable mental disorders characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior and associated with distress and/or impaired functioning. Approximately 5.4 percent of the adult population in the United States is affected by SMI

For a mental illness to be diagnosable, its symptoms must meet the criteria specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association.


greggish said...

Thanks Kristin. We aim to fill each issue of the Equal Justice Edition with insight and information about the most inspiring parts of the grassroots movement to halt executions - and the work NAMI is doing in this regard certainly fits the bill!

You can signup for the the Equal Justice Editionhere.

--Greg Bloom, Development Director, EJUSA