The other part of the law

It’s in the news today that John Hinckley Jr., the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, is to be released from the mental hospital:

John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, will be released from a psychiatric hospital after a judge on Wednesday set a series of conditions for him to live with his mother in Virginia.

The 103-page opinion from U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said Mr. Hinckley’s doctors have found he has “no signs of psychotic symptoms, delusional thinking, or any violent tendencies,’’ and therefore “presents no danger to himself or to others in the reasonable future if released.’’

Mr. Hinckley may be released as early as Aug. 5, the judge ruled.

The ruling means that 35 years after an attack that severely wounded the president and three others, Mr. Hinckley will be a free man—albeit with restrictions on his travel, communications, work and use of the internet.

Mr. Hinckley, 61, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 and committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Over the past 12 years, his doctors and the courts have been gradually loosening his restrictions, over objections from the Justice Department, allowing him to go to Williamsburg, Va., for unsupervised visits with his family more than 80 times.

As previous posts have noted, I’m very interested in the justification of legal penalty as deterrent. It has a lot of explanatory power, especially throughout history before large-scale incarceration centers were feasible. But deterrence only works for rational people. The mentally ill may not be deterred by expected punishment.

As my law&econ professor pointed out, even the mentally ill are not completely random thinkers (i.e. completely irrational), but they have systematic differences from mentally normal people. A system premised on deterrence needs a fallback, a separate way to handle people who don’t respond to incentives in the way others do.

Hinckley’s judge believes Hinckley is no longer dangerous to himself or others and thus should be released. I’m not sure how the other people affected by the shooting feel about this, but we can see the logic from a social standpoint. Executing him or having him die in jail won’t deter mentally ill people from attempting to assassinate future presidents. It costs the public money to incarcerate him, and there’s no social benefit unique to keeping him there. Mentally normal people know they face the main approach in the justice system, not the fallback approach, so it isn’t setting a bad precedent.

On top of this, I don’t know much about presidential security but from my time in DC I know it’s incredibly thorough. It would shock me if any president were ever seriously in danger again. If, counterfactually, there were a snowball’s chance in hell somebody could assassinate a 21st century president, I’d imagine it would be some kind of suicide attacker who wouldn’t be deterred by anything the legal system could threaten.

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