Mind Games – Criminal law


Insanity is used as a defense against responsibility for a crime. The first modern test of insanity was the M’Naghten rule (1843).

It held that a person was insane if he or she had such a defect of reason at the time of committing a criminal act that he or she did not know the nature and quality of the act or was unable to distinguish between right and wrong.[1]

Some jurisdictions have added to this the “irresistible impulse” test. More than half the states now accept this irresistible impulse promoted by the American Law Institute.

[Irresistible impulse] defines a criminal as insane “if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.”[2]

In 1983 the American Bar Association recommended the irresistible impulse rule be dropped. The federal anti-crime act of 1984 then put the burden of proof of insanity on the defendant for federal crimes.[3]


Involuntary commitment

Laws dictate that insane persons must seek help for themselves before treatment can begin. Therefore, involuntary commitment must meet certain criteria. Persons must

  • be in imminent danger of committing violence
  • be kicking and screaming, out of control
  • have already committed violence
  • be unable to care for themselves
  • be unable to communicate
  • be incompetent, unable to make decisions

Under such standards, it seems, the law nourishes and supports the right to be insane.[4 ] Families then become just as much a victim of the illness as the insane themselves.

Susan J. Shelley


1. “Insanity, legal” by Phil Brown. Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. CD-ROM ©1992.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Madness in the Streets: How Psychiatry and the Law Abandoned the Mentally Ill, by Rael Jean Isaac and Virginia C. Armat, p. 249.

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