Citizens Committee on Human Rights

The Mental Health Watchdog

Australian National Office

Dr Thomas Szasz Quotes on Psychiatry in Our Justice System

It is unlikely that toxicologists would be tolerated in courts of law if one would observe that he found a large quantity of arsenic in the body of a deceased person, and another stated that he found by the same operation none. Yet this sorry spectacle is commonplace in regard to psychiatric findings.

The introduction of psychiatric considerations into the administration of the criminal law—for example, the insanity plea and verdict, diagnoses of mental incompetence to stand trial, and so forth—corrupt the law and victimize the subject on whose behalf they are employed.

All criminal behavior should be controlled by means of the criminal law, from the administration of which psychiatrists ought to be excluded.

My belief that the insanity defense should be abolished is based partly on a conceptual critique and partly on a practical one. Now the conceptual one, very briefly, is that insanity is a dubious term which can refer to one of two things: First, to a brain disease, and I will say something about that; and secondly, to misbehavior. Well, disease, brain disease, does not cause criminal acts. Epilepsy as a brain disease does not cause criminal acts. Epileptics may or may not, just like other people, commit crime. Now, insofar as the term insanity refers to behavior, it is a fiction. It is not a disease, and doctors have no competence in judging that. It’s usually determined after a person commits a crime; usually if something gets upsetting socially. My second basis for objecting to it is that the consequences of the insanity defense typically is incarceration in the name of diagnosis, disease, and treatment. And that is a charade and a misuse of the medical profession for depriving people of liberty who are nominally declared to be innocent.

I have long maintained that the institution of psychiatry rests on civil commitment and the insanity defense and that each is a paradigm of the perversion of power. If the person called ‘patient’ breaks no law, he has a right to liberty. And if he breaks the law, he ought to be tried and declared guilty or not guilty by the criminal justice system…. Some people assault, rape, rob and kill others and thus endanger society. What does psychiatry contribute to their management? Civil commitment, which is a euphemism for preventive detention; and the insanity defense-and-disposition, which is a euphemism for defining incarceration as treatment (or a strategy for excusing guilt). These two procedures are the pillars on which psychiatric power rests. Each authenticates the fiction of psychiatric expertise to manage ‘dangerousness.’ Each creates and confirms the illusion that we are coping wisely and well with vexing social problems, when in fact we are obfuscating and aggravating them. Psychiatric power thus corrupts not only the psychiatrists who wield it and the patients who are subjected to it, but the community that supports it as well…. There is neither justification nor need for involuntary psychiatric interventions….

If he who breaks the law is not punished, he who obeys it is cheated. This, and this alone, is why lawbreakers ought to be punished: to authenticate as good, and to encourage as useful, law-abiding behavior. The aim of criminal law cannot be correction or deterrence; it can only be the maintenance of the legal order.