Criminal irresponsibility: the difficult border between the territory of evil and that of madness

By Anne Chemin

Posted on September 17, 2021 at 6:00 a.m., updated at 7:11 p.m.

For more than two centuries, judges and psychiatrists have endeavored, in the hushed walls of courthouses, to draw a watertight border between the territory of evil and that of madness. Because the penal code proclaims that there is neither crime nor misdemeanor when the offender is in a state of dementia at the time of the facts, they must, day after day, distinguish the sane criminals, who are called to appear. before justice, ” alienated “, which are intended to join care institutions. In doing so, they gradually draw the outlines of an eminently complex notion: criminal irresponsibility.

If this summa divisio has governed criminal justice since 1810, since the 1980s it has been increasingly poorly accepted by the social body. The French find it difficult to admit that criminals deprived of “Discernment” be exempt from all punishment: in the spring, the dismissal granted to the murderer of Sarah Halimi, a young man “Acute delusional puff”, aroused such an uproar that the government decided to reform the texts on criminal irresponsibility. For forty years, the share of non-places linked to mental disorders has collapsed: between 1984 and 2010, it was divided by more than four.

Read also the tribune: Sarah Halimi case: “The crime was that of a madman, which does not prevent him from being anti-Semitic”

Would we attend, at the beginning of XXIe century, to the decline of an idea present for millennia in many treatises devoted to justice? The part “Derisory”, see “Ridiculous”, psychiatric non-places, in the words of Daniel Zagury, is it linked to a change in the practice of experts? Because he hardly believes in it, the psychiatrist has for many years invited psychiatry prosecutors to broaden the spectrum: to understand this irresistible decline, he wrote in 2009 in the French Journal of Psychiatry, it is necessary to be interested in the collective conscience, the institutions and the taking into account of the victims – and this over a long period.

Already in ancient law

The penal irresponsibility of the “insane” is indeed a very old idea. We find the trace in the Babylonian code of Hammurabi, a text engraved on a stele of Mesopotamia 1700 years before Jesus-Christ, but also in the writings of Plato devoted, during the Athenian democracy, to the criminal law. Justice, emphasized in the Laws the Greek philosopher (Ve-IVe century BC), cannot condemn a “Crazy” or a man who is ” so much in the grip of disease, so overwhelmed by the excess of old age, or so much in childhood, that there is still no difference to be made between him and the madmen properly so called ”.

You have 87.82% of this article left to read. The rest is for subscribers only.

Leave a Comment