What is Insanity?

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  • Written By: Hillary Flynn
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 February 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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Many people use the word insanity to describe a condition driving one to operate outside of societal norms. It is thought to be a medical issue causing mental instability, abnormal behavior, and altered realities that leave the afflicted locked away in asylums. It is not, however, a term that is actually used in modern-day medical communities. Insanity is primarily used as a legal term that indicates a criminal defense in which the defendant claims no responsibility because he or she was incapable of controlling his or her actions or processing information in a rational manner at the time a crime occurred.

The insanity defense has become quite common in the world of criminal law. Though a defendant may have committed a crime, and though his or her actions may be clearly seen as the cause of the crime, if found to be legally insane, the defendant cannot be found criminally responsible. This is known as "not guilty by reason of insanity." This can be confusing for juries and members of the public who are not familiar with the intricacies of the law in this area, as the general understanding of the definition of insanity is often much different than the legal definition bandied about the courtrooms.


One group of defendants who can validly claim criminal insanity as a legal defense are those who do, in fact, have a documented and ongoing mental disorder. This might be referred to as some form of psychosis. Those who are plagued with a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia may experience hallucinations and altered states of reality that render the sufferer incapable of making rational decisions or controlling behavior. Therefore, the defendant in this category cannot be found guilty because whatever action was determined to be a crime was beyond the control of the individual.

Another group of defendants who may be found legally insane are those who do not suffer from an ongoing mental disorder, but who experienced a temporary state of insanity due to circumstances surrounding one particular crime. If these defendants were in such a state that they were unable to discern between right and wrong, a judge or jury may determine they were not criminally responsible for their actions in the moment a crime occurred. This may be caused by extreme stress, fear, or a number of other conditions that fall under the category of temporary insanity as determined by the legal system.



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