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A woman from Wangdue, who is mentally ill, created quite a scene at the court recently.

How ought we to process mentally ill offenders?

A woman from Wangdue, who is mentally ill, created quite a scene at the court recently.

The woman, who was apprehended on August 24 for battering a taxi driver in Thimphu, began shouting at court officials. Her father and the taxi driver, whom she had earlier assaulted, were seen running when she shouted at them, throwing invective. Hearing had to be shortened because she became ‘unmanageable’.

Situations like this raise some serious questions. How does our criminal justice system deal with mentally ill offenders? Should they even be made to go through legal process? In other words, are they even fit to stand trial? A person may be deemed unfit to stand trial if, because of a mental heath disorder, he or she does not understand the nature and object of the charge or the possible consequences of the charge or if he or she is not capable of communicating with counsel.

Mental illness in the criminal justice system so is a growing concern. There is a need to identify cost-effective, evidence-based programmes and policies for managing and treating mentally ill persons in the criminal justice system. Do we possess enough knowledge on this topic?

There will be cost and challenges involved in treating and processing offenders with mental illness in the criminal justice system. Identifying and providing early intervention for those who suffer from mental illness in the criminal justice system is, thus, vitally important because of societal and economic costs of holding mentally ill offenders in prisons.

Our prisons and jails as yet are not equipped to handle this growing population with special needs, which raises concerns about the well-being of mentally ill individuals involved in the criminal justice system and others around them.

Sending a person who is not criminally responsible – mental disorder of a person that makes him unable to judge the nature or quality of the criminal act or to understand that the act was wrong at the time it was committed – makes no sense.  We could think about employing criminal justice interventions and policies for mentally ill offenders like diversionary mechanisms, instead, so that cases or mentally ill offenders can be transferred to community-based mental health treatment programmes instead of prison or jail.

But then, do we even have a psychiatric institution? Do we have enough health professionals to deal with this growing illness, especially among the young? How do our laws treat them?

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