Someone told me the other day that the reason why we send people to jail is not to punish them. That’s not the reason at all.
The reason is protection. And it works both ways. Protecting society from criminals and protecting criminals from vigilante justice. One keeps society safe and the second keeps it sane.
That brings me to the topic of mental illness. It is possible to argue in the following manner : Almost all criminal behaviour is deviant from what we consider “normal”. Criminal behaviour born of thought patterns that are deviant from the normal is what we may call mental illness. And so a person who has exhibited criminal behaviour is to be treated as a victim of mental illness.
In the last century, we have recognised and accepted some forms of deviant behaviour as born of mental illnesses and recognised that some others (like homosexuality) are not illnesses at all and are perfectly normal.
But many other behaviours are yet to be recognised and formally classified as mental illness by the criminal justice system. Even perfectly normal behaviours like homosexuality continue to be criminalized in less developed legal systems and unfortunately in India as well.
Just as in other areas of life, I expect technology to play a major role in the coming two decades in this area. So far, psychiatry has not had the technology to look at things like genetic profiles or body chemistry at hormonal and other levels. The causal relationships or correlation between these and mental illnesses is neither visible nor well understood. I think that very strong relationships most likely exist and they will be found.
This opens up the possibility of cures or methods of containment.
Maybe in future, we will be able to treat these people as victims and help them to reverse the condition or contain it. Maybe many of the people who go to jail today, don’t really belong there.
Alok Sarin makes an interesting case here on an associated topic –