Community//

Society Didn’t Make Them Do It

Criminals often lie when they self-report their alleged mental illnesses

We all remember hearing variations on the lie, “society made me do it,” a lie spouted by criminals, sociopaths or psychopaths.

Some of us recall the end of movies like Ten to Midnight, a film from 1983, where Charles Bronson’s cop corners a serial killer, and the murderer shouts those words or something along those lines.

And if I am remembering correctly, Leo Gorcey’s punk, in one of the Dead End Kids movies, shouts a similar lie, perhaps at the end of Dead End, a Humphrey Bogart picture from the 1930s.

These are extreme examples of how criminals, on the screen, lie and feign mental illness, so that they won’t get the death penalty.

But actual criminals lie all the time and not only when they have committed a violent crime, like murder.

As it concerns the so-called linkage between mental illness and the penal system, Jane E. Brody, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote the most recent piece to touch on this subject in yesterday’s Science Times section of the paper of record.

Brody focused on humane solutions to our mental-health crisis, such as early-intervention programs, as well as expanded use of treatments that can be quite effective but are perceived to be dangerous, such as the use of clozapine, a medication often used for schizophrenia, and electro-convulsive therapy.

I agree with her that these treatments are often effective and typically safe, although there may be side effects or interactions with other medications.

I know this from my own observations on these matters and from my time spent in psychiatric wards, where friends and colleagues of mine, people with schizophrenia, severe depression and suicidal thoughts, did well in many cases after being administered ECT or after taking clozapine.

Although I have never needed ECT, I myself continue to take the generic for Abilify, which is a medication similar to clozapine, for my psychosis.

I also agree with Brody’s overall point that early intervention can help children and teens, who might be showing signs of mental illness.

And I was heartened that the New York Times columnist conceded that she “learned that people with serious mental ills are not necessarily prone to commit violent acts — they are far more likely to become victims of crime.”

With all due respect to Brody, I think it fair to say that I have for years been saying that the mentally ill, far from being “prone to commit violent acts,” are generally well-behaved and that we are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crime.

What saddened me was that Brody, like many other journalists, then characterized three jails in this country, Twin Towers in L.A., Cook County Jail in Chicago and Rikers Island, as “the country’s three largest facilities housing the mentally ill.”

I have been hearing this line of thinking for years.

In fact, earlier this year, Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, made a similar point in an article, titled “The Jail Health-Care Crisis,” in The New Yorker.

Coll’s piece had a different focus from Brody’s, in that he concentrated on poor health care in jails, care that is delivered in many cases by for-profit companies.  His piece also discussed the problems of addiction, not just mental illness.

In his article, Coll cited a Bureau of Justice Statistics study from 2017, indicating that “nearly half the people held in jails suffer from some kind of mental illness.”

I looked up that study, one published in June 2017 and one that has probably been relied upon by other journalists.

I reviewed the data, as well as the methodology that was used.

As is the case with Brody, I have great respect for Coll, but I would make a few points.

First of all, the statistics to which Coll alluded, in which 44% of jail inmates (and 37% of prisoners) claimed that they had a mental diagnosis, were based on self-reporting.

That means that the inmates, not clinicians, told correction officials of the disorders with which they had supposedly been diagnosed in their past.

Significantly, Jennifer Bronson and Marcus Berzofsky, who wrote the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, pointed out in the second paragraph, “The estimates are from self-reported data and should not be interpreted as representing a clinical diagnosis of a mental disorder.”   

It is hard to know how many of the inmates surveyed truly suffered or suffer from mental illness, since some of them could very well have been misdiagnosed, and others definitely could have been and assuredly were lying. 

Civilians, outside of the criminal justice system, often lie to hide their mental illness due to the perceived stigma.

Conversely, inmates or those headed for sentencing often lie by claiming to be mentally ill when they are not.  They do so in an attempt to receive privileges in jail or prison or reduced sentences from judges.

I know this not only from instinct and not only from seeing movies like Ten to Midnight and Dead End

I know this because my late wife, Barbara, and I served as whistle-blowers on a con man, who victimized us and others in several crimes some years ago.  He committed felony wire fraud against Barbara and me.

I won’t get into the specifics of the case, in which this criminal, a pathological liar, pleaded guilty and served less than a year in federal prison.

One would have hoped that he had reformed. 

But, like many con men, this perpetrator, even while he was being charged by federal authorities for the crimes he committed against Barbara and me, continued to lie, to misrepresent himself and to commit fraud and money laundering against other people, including one of his childhood friends, a retired nurse, as well as a retired Air Force veteran and his wife.

I should mention that the convict, who pleaded guilty to these other crimes and was recently sentenced to 74 months in prison, furthered his hideous behavior by asking me to drop the case years ago, when he claimed, before he had been imprisoned, that he might have suffered a bipolar episode.

Like the serial killer in Ten to Midnight and Leo Gorcey’s punk in Dead End, as well as most criminals, the con man had never been remotely mentally ill in his life.

It should be pointed out that a defining characteristic of sociopaths or psychopaths, amoral people, is that they are indeed con artists, pathological liars, who show no remorse for crimes they plan and commit.  Many psychiatrists do not consider them to be mentally ill at all because of their lack of remorse and their Iago-like plotting of evil schemes.

It goes without saying that the con man, who ripped off Barbara and me, as well as other people in other states, knew exactly what he was doing.  

Of course, I am aware that there are inmates in jail or prison, who do suffer from mental health problems and who have not been violent.

And, of course, I am aware that our criminal justice system is flawed, and that, among other systemic problems, it disproportionately targets minorities, including for nonviolent acts, like drug use.

But the vast majority of people who actually battle mental illness, irrespective of our race or ethnicity, do not commit any crimes, violent or otherwise.

As I have pointed out for years, the mentally ill, with no substance abuse problems, commit only 3% to 4% of violent crime. 

Yes, there are people with dual diagnoses, mental illness and substance abuse problems.  And, yes, they tend to commit crimes at a higher percentage.

But most people with mental illness blend into society and are quite capable of working.

When I gave a talk in 2017 at the annual gala for Thresholds, a mental-health support group in Chicago, I was delighted that Thresholds showed a film that highlighted how the organization had gotten jobs for many of its consumers.

Thresholds did not get its clients random jobs; the staff members consulted with the consumers and got them good jobs, jobs that they wanted, jobs that they liked.

For instance, Thresholds helped place one man in a job as a baker at a Panera store, and the support group placed another man in a job as a crossing guard.

I can still hear the latter fellow’s voice, as he spoke of how, with the money he was earning, he could now take his girlfriend out for a meal.

No one should be under the impression that most people, who truly suffer from mental illness, are criminals, even of a nonviolent variety.

As flawed as we are, as flawed as I am, most of us with mental health disorders do in fact blend into society, as I said before.  We behave fairly well, and we work in a variety of professions, including law enforcement and journalism. 

Most of us have never been in jail, and the last thing we want is to be falsely associated with criminals, who claim to be mentally ill, when many of them are just cowards and liars looking for a lenient sentence after victimizing others.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.