Examining the spike in insanity pleas - WXOW News 19 La Crosse, WI – News, Weather and Sports |

Examining the spike in insanity pleas

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Chippewa Falls (WQOW)- Mental health is complicated.  But the issue appears to be getting more attention across the country.  Part of the reason why is due to a spike in insanity pleas.  A defendant found not guilty because of a mental disease or defect is sent to a mental institution and not prison.  There is a debate about the use of the plea; something WQOW has been examining.

"It is a trend that more people are committing crimes because they are not getting the mental health services that they need," explains Chippewa County District Attorney Steve Gibbs.

In recent years, we've seen tragedies like the Colorado movie theatre shooting develop into a courtroom drama about sanity.  James Holmes, the man charged with murdering people in that theatre has entered an insanity plea.  Closer to home, insanity pleas have also been used by defendants in murder cases:  Aaron Schaffhausen, James Olson and Shane Hawkins.

Pleading not guilty by insanity or NGI for short, has become a lot more popular now than it was 10 or even 5 years ago.

"The public is being made more aware of the mental health problems we have in our society and the fact that we spend less on it," Gibbs says.  "So there are more people nowadays than there were in the past not being treated for mental health; thus, committing crimes."

There have been critics of the system who believe the insanity plea is an easy way out.  Gibbs is not one of those critics.

"I was a defense attorney for 25 years.  You look at all of your options.  I have had clients where I honestly believe that they weren't understanding and being able to help me," he remembers.  "It is your duty as an attorney that if you have that possibility, you at least have to bring it up with your client.  And if you feel that strongly about it, you need to alert the court to it so that the individual can be tested."

The answer isn't always clear cut.  Many times, the jury and judge have options.  In the Schaffhausen case, the jury found he had a mental defect, but also ruled that he knew what he was doing was wrong when he murdered his girls.  So does the legal system expect insanity pleas to be as common in the future?

"I believe it is something that's here to stay, mostly because society is being made more aware of our society problems with mental illness," Gibbs responds.

He believes fewer insanity pleas would be necessary if more money went into improving mental health services nationwide.

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