You can't just lock up psychopaths
Jack Straw is suggesting something that in other contexts would be called 'internment without trial'
All good populist stuff, but was it legal, decent or truthful? The answer is "no" on all counts. First of all, was Michael Stone mentally ill? The Health Authority, for once, came out of its corner fighting, and said he wasn't. Instead he had an antisocial personality disorder, which is doctor-speak for being a nasty piece of work. It is true that some people with mental illness are indeed violent and dangerous - but being violent or dangerous does not prove someone is mentally ill.
But let's give Mr Straw the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Stone did have a mental illness after all - would that be sufficient justification to detain him in hospital? Again the answer must be "no". With the benefit of hindsight, everyone would wish that had happened, but is that possible?
On paper it looks easy. We know a lot about the kind of things that increase the chances that someone with a mental illness will do something awful - being male, coming from a broken home, spending time in care, having previous convictions for violence, and using drugs - all of these are clearly associated with future risk of violence. When we look into the background of those with mental illness who did indeed commit a savage offence, that is what we usually observe. All of them were also present in the background of Michael Stone. Open and shut case, then.
But think for a moment just how many other people have similar backgrounds, yet do not commit hideous crimes. Sadly the answer is "lots". It is the problem of using something which is relatively common - 30 per cent of the male population, for example, have a criminal conviction by the time they reach 30 - to predict something which is thankfully very rare: murder.
Thinking only about people with a clear-cut mental illness, schizophrenia, and assuming that we know everything there is to know about the background of the people in question, then for every serious crime we would prevent by locking somebody up, we would detain about five people who would not have committed an awful offence. In the real world, where we never know everything there is to know, it would be far worse.
Michael Stone, according to the doctors, was what is often called a "psychopath". This is someone who consistently acts in a profoundly antisocial manner, and does so without any regard for the feelings of others. There is a debate among psychiatrists as to whether this is a mental illness, or a way of describing people no one likes and most are frightened of. There is less debate about whether psychiatrists can do anything about it - most psychiatrists say not.
The Mental Health Act, the law enacted by Parliament, states clearly that you cannot detain a psychopath solely to protect the public, but only if he or she is treatable, which they usually aren't. If the psychiatrists who tried to help Michael Stone had detained him against his will, they would have been breaking the law.
It is surprising that the Home Secretary seems not to know the law on this point. Instead he is suggesting something that in other contexts would be called "internment without trial" - locking people up in hospital, whether they are treatable or not, in case they might in the future do something awful.
It would not succeed. We no longer have the beds to treat those who need treatment, let alone those who can't be treated. It is also unfair. The knee-jerk assumption that Michael Stone must be mad because he did something horrible does nothing at all to ease the stigma of mental illness - universally acknowledged to be a major problem blighting the lives of those with mental disorders.
Finally, even if Jack Straw's vision came to pass, who would be around to put it into practice? Not me for sure. Psychiatrists are doctors, not gaolers. Psychiatry is part of medicine, not penal studies.
If, in the future, I am expected to train at Hendon Police College rather than medical school, count me out.
Simon Wessely is Professor of Psychiatry at King's College Hospital, London
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 4 The top 50 cities for young people to live in
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils