Under Massachusetts law, people who murder but are found ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ (NGRI) exit the criminal justice and mental health systems with no criminal record. This year, surviving family members of slain victims and several state lawmakers have been rallying to have this legislative caveat eliminated.
What ‘Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity’ Means
When someone is found to be guilty of murder by reason of insanity, it means that the court recognizes the person is guilty of the crime, but different sentencing guidelines apply. Because the jury accepts this person as not being in their right mind due to factors out of their control, they are not punished in the same way as ordinary criminals. In fact, a person found to be NGRI is eligible for prison release after just one year of incarceration. Furthermore, their conviction does not become part of their criminal record and therefore doesn’t show as a red flag during background checks.
It’s also important to note that people found NGRI may be institutionalized against their will indefinitely due to the different sentencing rules. Criminal justice advocates argue that both sides of the coin are inherently arbitrary and unfair.
An Applicable Example
14 years ago, Uxbridge resident Alice Saich’s 39-year-old son Stephen Reid was stabbed to death by his wife more than 130 times. When a neighbor entered the apartment, he found the woman “bizarrely calm” while standing over her husband’s body. It wasn’t until 2015 that she was deemed competent to stand trial. She has been held at the state-run Worcester Recovery Center but has been approved for staff-supervised visits into the community since August 2016.
Saich and her family members are very concerned about what might happen if she is granted a full release since she will emerge without a criminal record. She will be allowed to apply for jobs that require her to interact with others, perhaps even vulnerable people like children and the elderly.
An Accountability Shift
What Saich and other advocates want is for people currently deemed NGRI to receive a conviction of ‘guilty but insane’ (GBI) and have that charge become part of their permanent record after their release from psychiatric care or prison. Saich has the support of State Senator Ryan C. Fattman, R-Webster, who wants to force a legislative vote after a bill addressing this issue has been languishing in the state Legislature for a decade.
Sen. Fattman recently said, “I don’t think there’s many people out there that would argue that there shouldn’t be some indication on someone’s record that they stabbed somebody 130 times. We need to move this forward.” He and state Representative Joseph D. McKenna, R-Webster would like the law to change to include NGRI in the criminal record. They believe doing so would be more straightforward than adding a new GBI classification.
Currently, 20 states have shifted their laws to recognize GBI on criminal records to protect the public from potentially dangerous individuals who reenter society.