Leading Article: Locking up innocent people is indefensible

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The Independent Culture
FREEDOM FROM wrongful imprisonment is a fundamental human right. But next week Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is expected to publish a consultation paper on mental health reforms containing proposals that threaten this. At present, patients can be sectioned under the Mental Health Act for treatment, or, if they have been convicted of a criminal offence, they can be sent to jail. The Home Secretary's plans, however, are to extend a general power of preventive detention to people who have not committed any crime, simply on the basis that they have severe personality disorders and are regarded by some to be a grave risk to the public. This is a wrong step to take.

There is no doubt that too many horrendous crimes have been committed by mentally ill people who have been free to walk the streets. Yesterday, a psychiatric patient was sent to Broadmoor indefinitely for killing his social worker in a frenzied stabbing. The horror of crimes such as these is made all the harder to bear by the thought that, somehow, they might have been prevented. None the less, the Home Secretary's proposals are deeply flawed. First, a patient's future behaviour is best estimated by reference to his or past actions. This makes arbitrary, if not impossible, any diagnosis that an innocent patient is dangerous - and those identified as a risk to others may never commit a crime. Above all, however tragic the events of the past, it is simply wrong to imprison people who have not committed any crimes, on the off-chance that they may do so.

The treatment of the seriously mentally ill and the protection of the public are issues that do need to be tackled. There is room to expand the possibilities for treatment of patients with severe personality disorders. And there is a strong case for an indefinite, reviewable sentence for dangerous offenders with personality disorders who have committed a serious offence. But the grounds upon which people are deprived of their liberty, however seriously mentally ill they may be, must remain within these recognised bounds of treatment or criminal conviction. To do otherwise amounts to an infringement of human rights.