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
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 This 'woman calls police to order pizza' story isn't going where you're expecting
- 2 Axe wielding man shot dead after attacking four New York policemen on busy street
- 3 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 4 Jimmy Carr's Oscar Pistorius joke goes a bit too far at the Q Awards
- 5 Ottawa shootings: Bruce MacKinnon's cartoon is the perfect tribute to soldier Nathan Cirillo
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Attacks on 'Ukip Calypso' show how skewed people’s priorities are
Poppy Appeal 2014: This is why I won't be wearing a red poppy this year