Mental retardation and crime

Mental Retardation and Crime

The vast majority of people with mental retardation never break the law. Nevertheless, mentally retarded people may be disproportionately represented in America’s persons. Although people with mental retardation constitute somewhere between 2.5 and 3 percent of U.S. population, experts estimate they may constitute between 2 and 10 percent of the prison population. The disproportionate number of persons with mental retardation in the incarcerated population most likely reflects the fact that people with this impairment who break the law are more likely to be caught, more likely to confess and be convicted, and less likely to be paroled. It may also be that some of the people with mental retardation who are serving the prison sentences are innocent, but they confessed to crimes they did not commit because of their characteristic suggestibility and desire to please authority figures. See Section IV below.

As with people of normal intelligence, many factors can prompt people with mental retardation to commit crimes, including unique personal experiences, poverty, environmental influences and individual characteristics. Attributes common to mental retardation may, in particular cases, also contribute to criminal behavior. The very vulnerabilities that cause problems for people with mental retardation in the most routine daily interactions can, at times, lead to tragic violence.

Many people with mental retardation are picked upon, victimized and humiliated because of their disability. The desire for approval and acceptance and the need for protection can lead a person with mental retardation to do whatever others tell him. People with mental retardation can fall prey when people with greater intelligence decide to take advantage of them, and they become the unwitting tools of others. Many of the cases in which people with mental retardation have committed murder involved other participants—who did not have mental retardation—and/or occurred in the context of crimes, often robberies, that were planned or instigated by other people. As one expert in mental retardation has noted, “Most people with mental retardation don’t act alone. They are usually dependent. They are never the ringleader or the leader of gang.”

“Joe, a mentally retarded man, admired tough-talking local drug dealers and sought to befriend them. One day his drug dealer “friends” gave Joe a gun and instructed him to go into a store and take money from the clerk. They told him, however, “Don’t shoot the guy unless you have to. “Joe hid for while, and then entered the store, but he forgot his instructions. “He panicked and couldn’t remember the plan. He shot the guy and forgot to rob the store.”

Billy Dwayne White, a teenager with mental retardation, allied himself with older men in the neighborhood, one of whom testified: “When Billy started hanging around us he was real scared and timed. We told him that he would have to change. We taught him how to steal. We would get him to do things that were wrong by telling him that he was a coward if he didn’t and that he could only be in our gang if he showed us that he had courage…we could persuade him to do these things because he was easily misled.

People with mental retardation may also engage in criminal behavior because of their characteristically poor impulse control, difficulty with long-term thinking, and difficulty handling stressful and emotionally fraught situations. They may not be able to predict the consequences of their acts or resist a strong emotional response. The homicides committed by the people with mental retardation acting alone are almost without exception unplanned, spur of the moment acts of violence in the context of panic, fear, or anger, often committed when another crime, such as a robbery, went wrong. For example, William Smith, I.Q. 65, tried to take money from “old Dan,” a friendly elderly storekeeper he had known all his life. When Dan resisted, smith panicked and lashed out, killing him.

Low intellectual skills and limited planning capacities mean that people who have mental retardation are more likely than people of normal intelligence to get caught if they commit crimes. As a result, they make goof “fall guys” for more sophisticated criminals. A suspect with mental retardation is also less likely to know how to avoid incriminating himself, hire a lawyer and negotiate a plea.


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