Yesterday’s post about society’s denial of mental illness drew some very thoughtful comments which reflect the apples-versus-oranges, libertarian-versus-communitarian nature of this debate. I’m not even sure it’s a debate, as people have such widely diverging views which come from different directions.
Are these people — those belonging to dysfunctional, unwashed and hallucinatory classes — suffering people who need help? Or are they to be treated as full citizens with all rights and responsibilities thereto pertaining?
This touches on the fairness issue, which breeds an enormous amount of resentment (much of which remains unstated and unacknowledged). I worry that by a process of unwitting collusion, society has created a class of people who are considered beyond the law, and specially privileged (albeit in a de facto manner). When ordinary taxpaying citizens perceive that in the case of some people, the ordinary remedy of calling the cops does not work, they are likely to resent those people. (This is also a frequent complaint about illegal aliens, but that’s another topic.)
Ironically, it was never a deliberate goal of society to create any “special privilege” for the mentally ill. It’s just that because the mentally ill are incapable of being law-abiding in the normal sense, it strikes many of us as “unfair” to punish them for the same crimes we would expect normal people to be punished for. That is not mere bleeding heart liberalism, but a traditional view grounded in an endangered form of thinking once known as common sense, and it is a major reason people like that used to be placed in mental hospitals.
Analysis is further complicated by the standard which Xhristopherus mentioned in the comments — whether or not the mentally ill person poses a threat to himself or others. Now, I think it could easily be argued that someone who is incapable of being law-abiding does in fact pose a threat to himself or others, but that runs afoul of the libertarian view that indefinite civil commitment for criminal behavior is unconstitutional punishment. And I can see the logic of that; after all, if a sane shoplifter would normally get probation or a 30-day sentence, why should the insane shoplifter be locked up possibly for the rest of his life? What is being missed here is that the insane shoplifter is not being locked up as punishment, so it’s apples and oranges to compare the two.
But anyway, the mindset has prevailed that we should not put the insane shoplifter in a mental hospital, because that would be unfair. Seen in isolation, most people tend to go along with that thinking. So, while we have done away with the idea of committing the insane, we have not done away with the traditional view that because the mentally ill are incapable of being law-abiding in the normal sense, they should not be punished. This is aggravated by the very serious problems that the mentally ill face in prisons, where they in fact do not belong. The problem is increasing, though, because prison is the only place for the mentally ill to go once they have committed crimes serious enough that they cannot be ignored. So activists agitate constantly for their release. As they should, because in prison not only are they victims of other inmates, but in a matter reminiscent of the way they were treated in medieval times, they are punished for their symptoms:

Prison staff often punish mentally ill offenders for symptoms of their illness, such as being noisy, refusing orders, self mutilating or even attempting suicide. Mentally ill prisoners are thus more likely than others to end up housed in especially harsh conditions, including isolation, that can push them over the edge into acute psychosis.
“Asking prisons to treat people with serious mental illness is pushing round pegs into square holes,” said Fellner. “People who suffer from mental illness need mental health interventions, not punishment for behavior that may be motivated by delusions and hallucinations.”

Well, that’s all good and fine, but the problem is that they don’t get mental health interventions. Instead they are treated as normal citizens with the same rights as everyone else.
In this way, the communitarian and libertarian viewpoints have been unwittingly combined to create a hybrid monster. This has had a ripsaw effect of creating a specially privileged class, much to society’s detriment.
As a practical matter, until they commit serious crimes, you can’t lock ’em up, and you can’t put ’em away.
Whether you’re a communitarian or a libertarian, that’s unfair.
MORE: Just to be more clear, I should restate the above this way.
As a practical matter, until they commit serious crimes, you can’t imprison them [because isn’t fair to treat insane people as criminals], and you can’t commit them [because it isn’t fair to put insane people in mental hospitals].
We are treating the mentally ill as mentally ill when it comes to criminal accountability, yet as normal citizens when it comes to their mental illness.
And we call them crazy….