Senate Bill (SB) 1156, created to prohibit the execution of criminals who were mentally ill during the time they committed a crime, was favored by the Florida Senate’s Criminal Justice committee March 30 and is now in the hands of the Judiciary, the state’s committee that oversees Florida’s justice department.
The bill would ban a criminal convicted of a capital felony from being given the death sentence if they were deemed mentally ill at the time the crime was committed and cannot comprehend their sentence, replacing it with life in prison, or more importantly, psychiatric hospital care, as decided by the judge.
Serious mental illness is defined in the bill as any mental diagnosis that impairs a person’s capability to comprehend their actions and the consequences of their crime. Federally, serious mental illness is defined as a psychological disability that limits “life activities” and results in a “serious functional impairment,” according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
If passed, the bill would allow mentally ill criminals to gain rehabilitation and would minimize the number of death sentences served. Following in the footsteps of Texas, Ohio and Virginia, states that have already passed similar bills, Florida would be saving the lives of many who should not be executed due to their disability.
There have been 22 cases of mentally ill inmates in Florida being executed out of the 55 prisoners sentenced to death since 2000, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Sentencing those with a mental illness to death is not an eye for an eye, the common justification for legal execution, but is instead usually the murder of someone without any concern for the effects of their disability on the person’s life and behavior.
In 2013, for example, a man with paranoid schizophrenia named John Ferguson was executed in Miami-Dade County after being on death row since 1978 for the murders of eight people. His case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court to plead that his sentence was cruel and unusual punishment, since his mental illness appeared to be the motivation for his crimes, but nonetheless he was killed.
Ferguson could have been hospitalized to be treated and rehabilitated while being punished for his crimes, but instead was never given the chance. SB 1156 will stop the Florida incarceration system from executing the mentally ill before attempting to help them.
It is extremely common for American prisoners to be diagnosed with a mental illness. The U.S. Department of Justice found in 2017 that 40% of prisoners had a history of mental illness, including major depressive disorders, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most of the disorders that inmates are commonly diagnosed with have treatments available that could easily be provided to inmates through hospitalization and the money saved by eliminating their death sentence.
SB 1156 would also make progress toward getting rid of the death penalty in the state and around the country. The state would see a decrease its death penalty rates, which is one of the highest in the country with 339 offenders on death row as of November 2020, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
Florida was home to 13% of all death row inmates in the U.S. in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which can potentially be reduced by allowing convicted felons to rehabilitate themselves through mental health assistance, like hospitalization and rehabilitation.
Almost half of the states in the U.S. have eliminated the death penalty, but many of those that still allow for the execution of criminals do not account for the mentally ill. Ohio, Texas and Virginia passed similar bills prohibiting the execution of those with a mental disability, effectively saving the lives of many who would have otherwise been punished for their disability. The other 24 states that still sentence criminals to death, however, continuously fail to attempt to rehabilitate their mentally ill criminals before killing them.
Due to this change, Texas jails have become the state’s largest mental health institutions, improving inmates’ care, according to the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Health and Public Policy.
There is already a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2007 that prohibits a criminal from being sentenced to death if they are deemed to not be able to comprehend their sentencing due to mental incapability, a direct response to the execution of those with psychological illnesses.
This ruling, however, has not done enough to protect mentally ill criminals from executions. SB 1156 will not only protect those who were exhibiting mental illness during their sentence, but will also protect those who exhibited symptoms during the time they committed their crime, like hallucinations and communicative problems.
Since the bill has not been able to gain a sponsor from the Florida House of Representatives, it will likely not be passed by the end of this legislative session April 30, delaying the help that those on death row need. In the meantime, citizens can advocate for the bill to be sponsored by protesting the lack of mental health protections given to convicted felons in Florida.
Criminals with mental illnesses should not be executed in response to their federal crimes, but should instead receive life in prison or, more effectively, mental health care.
This bill should be progressed and sponsored by the Florida House to improve the lives and provide hope for those on death row who do not deserve to be killed due to their mental disability.