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article imageOp-Ed: PTSD, veterans and crime — Serious legal problems arising

By Paul Wallis     Feb 5, 2015 in Crime
Washington D.c. - The idea that PTSD sufferers should be exempt from the death penalty has opened a lot of different cans. Not least of which is “discriminatory law,” the issue of separating a group of people with a medical condition by legal classification.
PTSD follows its victims around. It’s hard to get away from it, and it’s always there when a crisis occurs. More stress opens the door for it. The nasty, ugly trail of PTSD comes from as far back as Vietnam, and for all anyone knows, Korea and WW2.
The problem is that an extremely complex medical condition, in an equally complex environment with multiple sources of stress, doesn’t necessarily translate into Easy Bake Law. In the US, where guns, poverty and criminal issues are the obvious risks, the human elements are the catalysts for multiple different violent events.
PTSD vs laws
Murders, manslaughter, and variations thereof are the capital crimes which triggered the debate about exempting veterans from the death penalty. Cases are cited in which the PTSD affected vets are simply in the wrong place during criminal events with few choices.
PTSD sufferers are considered disadvantaged in many ways, and rightly so. The idea is to make legal allowances for the veterans, recognizing the difficulties of their situations and the problems PTSD causes and aggravates. It’s not an unreasonable idea, but it’s more difficult than it looks. It could also create an unhealthy situation through extrapolation.
Anecdotal information and stats are telling a tale of extreme complexity and some decidedly nasty events. War experience is directly related to increased murder rates. Some studies also indicate that up to 10 percent of veterans have been arrested on return to the US. That’s both a huge number of people and a very broad range of possible applications of multiple legal situations.
To get the big picture, readers need to visualize a large, continually unsolved problem affecting millions of people. It would be a very turgid exercise to cite veteran crime stats in depth. There’s so much information, and so many cases. The US Department of Veterans Affairs can provide the core data for the epidemiology of PTSD. The American Psychological Association defines the crisis of PTSD in the criminal justice system.
Law or no law?
The law can avoid being an ass, in this case. The big problem is creating a separate class of law for people with a specific medical condition. This is intended to be positive legal discrimination, but it could be negative.
The legal argument for exempting vets with PTSD can be considered a basic and reasonable judicial consideration, to start with. It could also be considered discriminatory, if a special allowance is made for one group, and not for other people who may have a legitimate, but unrecognized, or perhaps undiagnosed form of PTSD.
In effect, having or not having PTSD would be built in as a contributing factor to the sentencing process. It would be part of the judgment. “I have to sentence this person to death mainly because they don’t have PTSD whether I like it or not” would make to put it mildly bizarre reading in any court of appeal.
There’s another, less appealing aspect. What if laws are permitted to make distinctions against people based on a specific disease or condition? What if the medical condition, in effect, becomes the main legal issue? Justice may require a lot of second opinions.
The ramifications of medical conditions as legal parameters could extend as far as genetics, given a chance. That’s no major leap of logic. Genetic conditions are very much part of the medical landscape. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t become a major component of the legal landscape as well.
The desire to help veterans with PTSD is commendable. It would be better, however, to think ahead of possible negatives and counterproductive possibilities. Legal precedents don’t go away. They evolve and expand. The law isn’t always right, either, and mistakes can evolve, too.
This is criminal law we’re talking about, and the issues are serious crimes involving large numbers of people, deaths, and injuries. Should the law be made more complex? Should someone be sentenced to death based on whether a court believes they have PTSD or not?
This idea opens too many cans of very large worms. Better to create a clear framework for legal assessment for PTSD than to let in the dogmatists and the statutory straitjackets.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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