Double stigma: how jurors perceive mentally ill defendants

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University of Alabama Libraries

The media has had a long history of portraying mentally ill individuals as a danger to the community and others, feeding the public imagery, which may contribute to the perceived criminalization of mental illness. While the link between criminality and mental illness has long been acknowledged, it is not yet fully understood. The aim of the current study was to understand how mental health diagnoses and offense type may change the recommended disposition and perceived level of dangerousness of the offender by potential jury members. An online survey was administered to 142 undergraduate students enrolled in two randomly selected introductory courses to criminal justice at The University of Alabama. Participants received one of six experimental vignettes that varied by portrayed mental health diagnosis and portrayed offense. Participants saw a significant difference between no mental health diagnosis and any mental health diagnosis when recommending a disposition and when estimating dangerousness. Participants also saw a significant difference between theft and simple assault when estimating dangerousness. These findings suggest that the label of mentally ill does play a role when recommending a disposition and estimating dangerousness. Implications from the current study include furthering the education of the general public to steer away from the common misconceptions that the mentally ill are inherently dangerous, and how traditional criminal justice sanctions, such as prison, may not be adequately prepared to house and treat mentally ill offenders.

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