Tuesday, October 7, 2008

If a Person Can Get It

Ron Honberg, Legal and Policy Director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has been our partner in organizing the "Prevention, Not Execution" project. Here's the statement he delivered at the event in San Antonio last Friday:

It is perhaps ironic that I am standing here, because NAMI is known to be an organization that fights very hard against the stigma of perceived violence that often surrounds severe mental illnesses.

It is important to say right up front that most people with severe mental illnesses are not violent. In actuality, they are far more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence.

However, acts of violence do occur. Because the crimes often appear senseless, the individuals who commit them are often portrayed and perceived as monsters – people with no redeeming qualities who deserve their fates.

In fact, even though state laws list mental disease and defects as a factor that should mitigate against the death penalty, there is evidence that defendants with serious mental illnesses are more likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted of similar crimes without mental illnesses.

When you closely examine these cases, you often realize that the individuals who committed them were not monsters at all. In many of these cases, their actions were responses to overwhelming delusions and hallucinations – such as voices that they were powerless to resist, commanding them to act in ways they never would have had they been in their right minds.

Mental illness is a medical illness. It is a disease of the brain. It requires medical treatment. Treatment is the best way to minimize or eliminate terrifying symptoms that are the root of many tragic cases.

Treatment works—if a person can get it. But sadly, treatment is frequently not available when people need it the most.

In 2003, President Bush appointed a mental health commission that called the nation’s mental health care system a fragmented “system in shambles.”

In 2006, NAMI conducted the first comprehensive assessment of publicly-funded state mental health services in 15 years. What we found shocked us. The national average grade was a D. Eight states got Fs.

The sad but undeniable truth is that in many parts of the country, there is no mental health system at all. NAMI in no way minimizes or excuses the horrendous crimes that can lead to the death penalty, but we believe the answer lies not in executing people who struggle with illnesses that are no fault of their own, but rather, in taking steps to prevent crimes from ever occurring.

Today’s meeting is extraordinary because families of people with severe mental illnesses who have been executed and families of victims killed by people with severe mental illnesses will stand before you united in the belief that executing people with severe mental illness is wrong.

I cannot adequately express the gratitude that we feel towards these remarkable people for gathering today to tell their stories. And, I particularly want to thank Renny Cushing, Susannah Sheffer, and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights for convening this meeting and for allowing NAMI to share in this momentous event.

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