No Justice for All: The Dangerous Lack of Standardization in Our Criminal System and the Man Whose Life Is on the Line Because of It

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The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not] be inflicted” upon those who have been convicted of a crime. Short, simple, and straight to the point. Yet, why do we continue to battle with this issue today?

In 2002, the Atkins v. Virginia federal trial analyzed the question of whether those who are diagnosed as “mentally retarded” can be executed constitutionally. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that sentencing these inmates to death row was “cruel and unusual,” since they don’t have the same mental capacity as other offenders, and therefore should not be prosecuted as harshly. This was one of the cases that our class studied in the past unit, and you could only imagine my surprise when I recently read a headline mentioning a similar situation approaching the Supreme Court.

“High court to look at death row inmate with low IQ,” the title of the article read. “How ironic,” I thought, “since we just covered a similar case. Maybe it’s the anniversary?” I quickly clicked the article and was appalled to read that it was a different case, with many of the same characteristics as Atkins. What perplexed me the most was the fact that a seemingly identical case was being argued before the Supreme Court a little more than a decade after the first. Here’s a little background on the current issue. Freddie Lee Hall, along with Mack Ruffin, was sentenced to death row after being convicted of the murder of 21 year-old, pregnant Karol Hurst in 1978. Because of the gruesome nature of the crime, it only seems natural that the Florida Criminal System would want these felons to be sentenced to death. And that is exactly what they did. Well, originally. Ruffin’s sentence was eventually changed to life in prison. In 1989, Hall’s first sentence was thrown out, and a judge ordered a new hearing. He was, once again, sentenced to death, but also declared mentally disabled. However, since this was before Atkins he was still considered eligible for the death penalty. But, since Atkins was decided 13 years later, you would think the court would reassess his sentence. You would be wrong. Although the ruling restricted individual states’ ability to execute mentally disabled convicts, it ultimately left the determination of what is considered to be “mentally-retarded” as a state decision, and Florida set its state IQ limit at 70. Since Hall’s IQ skirts barely above 70 (it was once declared as 71), he is ineligible for having his sentence changed.

How is it justice that Hall has to face death, when his accomplice was given life in prison? Thankfully, the case will be heard before the Supreme Court in early 2014. Although Atkins answered the important question about the constitutionality of executing mentally disabled inmates, it opened the door for an influx of other questions concerning our treatment of the mentally disabled in our criminal system.  Image

Instead of receiving treatment, larger and larger quantities of the mentally ill are being herded in prisons. If you look below, you see that as the 20th Century progressed, the number of mentally-ill in mental facilities decreased as the number of mentally-ill in prisons increased. For every 100,000 adults in 2001, which is around the time of the Atkins decision, there were fewer than 100 mentally-disabled adults in mental hospitals, while there were 600 incarcerated.

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Another aspect of this pressing issue is the absence of federal standardization of what IQ is considered to be “mentally retarded.” Is it fair if a man with a score of 75 is eligible for death row in one state, but ineligible in another? If you answered no, then you will find the current process to be appalling. Currently, there are 9 states with very strict IQ requirements related to the death penalty (Florida, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington), and there is no standardization for state IQ requirements. Even if an inmate scores slightly above the maximum value of one of these nine states, they will be ruled eligible for death penalty, regardless of whether their score makes them ineligible in another state. The fact that Hall was declared mentally disabled by a judge, previous to the Atkins case, has no resonance here.

How is that justice for all?

Sources:

ATKINS v. VIRGINIA. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 21 October 2013.

“High Court to Look at Death Row Inmate With Low IQ.” Fox News. N.p., 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.

“Mental Healthcare.” Cartoon. PoliticalCartoons.com. Daryl Cagle’s PoliticalCartoon.com Store, 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://www.politicalcartoons.com/cartoon/9975b463-1f26-4a94-9c2d-a18dd0da3e2e.html.

“Mentally Ill in the Prison Population.” Chart. Beltwayoutsiders.wordpress.com. Beltwayn Outsiders, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://beltwayoutsiders.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/mentally-ill-in-the-prison-population.png?w=750.

No Justice, No Peace. Digital image. Vote29.com. Cactus Thorns, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://www.vote29.com/newmyblog/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/NO-JUSTICE-NO-PEACE.jpg.

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6 comments

  1. Hi my name is Kayla Szymanski and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am currently in a computer class called EDM310 and I have been assigned your blog. Wow what a great article. I am very impressed with your blog, it looks great. Also the article was very interesting, I don’t think most people even think about mental illness when things like this happen. Your charts and cartoon was very powerful, you did a great job. The chart was almost unbelievable and almost sad. I see you have a very strong platform within this blog and I encourage you to stick with it. If you don’t tell it or explain it, nobody will ever know about it. What a interesting read, thanks! Keep up the good work.

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    • Hi Kayla! I agree that this aspect concerning the treatment of the mentally ill is often overlooked and pushed aside. Like you said, many people are not aware of this pressing issue in our prison systems. I know that I wasn’t before I started this class and learned about the original case. Also, it’s really good hearing from you that the charts and the cartoons helped emphasize my point. That’s what I was aiming for, and I’m glad that I presented a convincing argument. Thanks for your comment!

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  2. Hey! My name is Hilary Thames and I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama! What a great post! While reading this, you had my attention the whole time! VERY interesting topic and great writing as well! You have some very good points, and I really enjoyed reading your post! Keep up the great work! 🙂

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    • Thank you so much for your comment Hilary! I’m happy to hear that I was able to capture your attention with my post. I found this particular topic to be very interesting, so I’m glad I was able to transfer this sentiment into my writing. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Hi Jacqueline! My name is Lindsay Stewart; I attend the University of South Alabama, and I’m currently enrolled in the EDM310 class. Your post was well crafted and thought out; your choice of verbiage was perfect. This issue was an eye opener for me, as I was previously unfamiliar with the Atkins v. Virginia case. To me, having a mental illness is seen as a stigma in our society, and this is a sad reality. In your post, you also referenced how states have different levels of IQ to determine whether inmates should be considered, “mentally retarded.” This is certainly not justice for all, and these individuals are not being treated equal. After reading this post, I asked myself, “What can I do?”, “How can we change this?” The answer and/or solution may not come today or tomorrow; however, getting to the solution begins with shedding light on the issue. That is exactly what this blog post did. Thank you for highlighting this issue.

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    • Hi Lindsay! I had the same reaction to Atkins when I first learned about the case, so it’s nice to hear that you reacted in a similar manner. Our society’s view of mental illness with disapproval and insensitivity is sad, and the fact that many of these individuals are simply being herded into a prison cell instead of receiving the care and treatment they deserve is even sadder. I’m very excited to hear that my post is “shedding light on the issue,” and that my writing evoked a few questions in your mind.Thank you so much for your feedback.

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