18 September 2010

Murder, infanticide and the psychology of crime

A recent news item about a teenager suffering from postpartum depression who admitted to smothering two of her babies caught my eye. She had been accused of first degree murder, but her trial judge reduced the charge to the lesser offence of infanticide and sentenced her to one day in jail, three years probation and a 20-year peace bond. Crown prosecutors intend to argue in an appeal that L.G. should be convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

According to University of B.C. law professor Isabel Grant, "What the Crown is saying is that if a woman intended to kill her child, murder is the only option." She claims that prosecutors across the country are taking a hard line, arguing that "the circumstances that led to the crime of infanticide don't exist any more."

Perhaps they don't, but postpartum depression certainly does. L.G.'s lawyer, Timothy Breen, states that Parliament includes infanticide in the law because it presumes that "a mother would not intentionally kill her child unless she were suffering from a disturbed mind." That L.G. was suffering from a disturbed mind is to be expected. Her parents were emotionally unstable alcoholics who separated when she was a child. Her mother ultimately committed suicide. According to an article in Psychology Today, "In almost every case of significant adult depression, some form of abuse was experienced in childhood, either physical, sexual, emotional or, often, a combination."

If L.G. committed her crimes because of such a background, then punishing her is to some extent punishing her for being a victim. And this I suggest is what we commonly do. Psychopaths, for instance, who make the worst of criminals, are commonly the product of abusive infancies and childhoods. According to Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman of the Center For Family Development in New York, "Abused and neglected children have poorly integrated cerebral hemispheres. This poor integration of hemispheres and underdevelopment of the orbitofrontal cortex is the basis for such symptoms as difficulty regulating emotion, lack of cause-effect thinking, inability to accurately recognize emotions in others, inability of the child to articulate the child’s own emotions, an incoherent sense of self and autobiographical history, and a lack of conscience." Psychopaths are victims who in turn create victims.

Is it justice, then, to punish victims for being victims? Obviously if they are a danger to others, they must be constrained, but should they be constrained by a criminal justice system or by a mental health system? In the case of L.G., confining her in prison for life, as the Crown wants to do, seems medieval, yet she can't be allowed to go on killing babies. The answer would seem to lie in an approach that monitors her carefully and provides her with the therapy and training to help her be a good parent.

Not all that long ago, we were at a loss as to what to do with the mentally ill, so we locked them up in "madhouses" where they were often cruelly misused. We have greatly progressed since then. Yet we still have a long way to go in dealing appropriately with mental illness that manifests itself in what we term criminal behaviour. It requires a combination of justice, compassion and subtlety that currently eludes us.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that there has to be some middle ground. The purpose of the prison system is to prevent crime. I guarantee that adequately addressing and treating this woman's mental illness will be far more effective in preventing her from harming other people than throwing her in a prison.

    If you're interested in reading about mental illness from the perspective of a child of mentally ill parents, feel free to read my blog. http://barrelofmonkeys2010.blogspot.com/