This article in the New York Times caught my attention yesterday,
partly because just a few weeks ago I commented on paper at the Central APA meeting on the
punishment of late stage demented offenders:
The number of prisoners in the US with dementia is on the rise. The NYT
article above notes that due to budget constraints, offenders whose cognition
is so compromised that they cannot take care of themselves are being
cared for by other prisoners. This is a risky solution at best.
I don’t think late stage demented prisoners should be in prison at all. Proportionality is a hallmark of retributive punishment, the primary principle of punishment according the US Model Penal Code. To be just, punishment must be proportional to either the crime committed or harm caused, and to the type of offender. A murderer deserves more punishment than a car thief. And a person who is insane or mentally incompetent is not as deserving of punishment as someone with normal mental capacity. This is because one with diminished mental capacities does not know what they were doing is wrong in the same way a competent person does, or they fail to fully understand the consequences of their acts.
This requirement of proportionality is not only relevant at the time the crime is committed. In Panetti v. Quarterman, the US Supreme Court refused to allow Panetti to be executed because he thought he was being executed for his religious beliefs, instead of his earlier crimes. According to the Court, retribution requires that capital punishment “…have the potential to make the offender recognize at last the gravity of his crime and to allow the community as a whole…to affirm its own judgment that the culpability of the prisoner is so serious that the ultimate penalty must be sought and imposed. The potential for a prisoner’s recognition of the severity of the offense and the objective of community vindication are called in question, however, if the prisoner’s mental state is so distorted by a mental illness that his awareness of the crime and punishment has little or no relation to the understanding of those concepts shared by the community as a whole.” That is, if the person doesn’t understand that they are getting their “just deserts,” they feel no connection to society’s values or judgment of their acts.
For this reason, a late-stage demented offender who cannot remember their crime is no longer the person who deserves their just deserts. If he cannot link the suffering imposed by imprisonment to their earlier act, he is not enduring punishment proportional to their harmful act. I thus think where there is no basic comprehension of the connection between current punishment and an earlier crime, late stage demented offenders should be released or civilly committed.
For a fuller (more popularized) treatment of this topic using all the principles of punishment, see:
Any comments would be appreciated.