Washington's justice system needs more verdict options for criminals with mental illness
Phillip Paul, the Eastern State Hospital patient who escaped at a county fair, raises important questions about the options for treating and punishing mentally ill criminals. State Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, suggests it is time for a new category: guilty but mentally ill.
Special to The Times
WE now know the story of Phillip Paul, the man found not guilty by reason of insanity for a 1987 murder and sent to a state mental hospital for treatment. Major headlines detailed his escape from a field trip to the Spokane County Fair. Since then, many ideas for change have been brought forward by citizens, interest groups and lawmakers.
Some suggest we need better security at state hospitals, including strict lockdown procedures and the elimination of things like field trips and off-campus passes. Many suggestions thus far are good bandages, but bandages nonetheless. These reforms miss the fundamental question we must ask when dealing with mentally ill individuals who commit extremely violent crimes: What systemic flaw sent Phillip Paul there in the first place?
Should a mental illness completely absolve a person from criminal responsibility for their actions with a verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity"?
Under Washington state law, a defendant may plead "not guilty by reason of insanity." By doing so they assert they suffer from a mental illness that either caused them not to know the nature or quality of the criminal act they are accused of or they did not know right from wrong while they committed it.
When a defendant asserts this defense, the judge or jury is left with only two options: finding the defendant guilty of the crime charged, resulting in prison; or "not guilty by reason of insanity," resulting in a hospital stay as a medical patient.
These limited options result in violent killers such as Paul being treated as medical patients, eligible for field trips and freedoms that put the public's safety at risk.
The Paul case teaches us we need more options to deal with mentally ill violent offenders. Luckily, such an option exists. Gov. Chris Gregoire and Susan Dreyfus, the state secretary of Social and Health Services, have suggested we explore a third possible verdict of "guilty but mentally ill" for juries to consider when determining the fate of these offenders.
The concept of "guilty but mentally ill" is not new. In 2008, I served on a task force formed by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail to examine how we handle dangerous mentally ill criminal offenders. Satterberg urged legislative leaders to consider giving juries a third option of a finding of "guilty, but mentally ill."
In light of the Phillip Paul matter, it is now time to have that conversation again. The Legislature should amend the state law to empower judges and juries with a tool to adjudicate these types of cases with far greater specificity, resulting in verdicts that more accurately describe — and ultimately properly place — an offender like Paul.
The "guilty but mentally ill" option already exists in 14 states. If Washington adopts this principle, then a jury facing a defendant like Paul would now have three distinct options. I have no doubt that the option of "guilty but mentally ill" would come as a welcome relief to any citizen serving on a jury or a judge overseeing such a serious case.
This verdict would provide an avenue of both accountability for a person's actions, resulting in safety for the public, but would also keep us from dumping seriously mentally ill individuals into the middle of the general prison population, and instead, placing them in a segregated and safe treatment facility within the corrections system.
We can treat mentally ill violent offenders though a "guilty but mentally ill" structure, caring both for their needs and for ours.State Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, represents the 31st Legislative District. A retired police commander, he chairs the House Public Safety Committee.