Last October, The New York Times published an article by researcher Eyal Press in which he questioned the treatment and response to mentally ill people involved in hate crimes in the United States. Press is the author of the book Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.
The author explains that since the onset of the COVID pandemic, a wave of violence against Asian Americans has spread across the country. There have been blatant assaults in which victims have been spat on, beaten, pushed from the subway platform, stabbed or shot with firearms. This shocking number of attacks that have made the news has meant that most of those arrested have turned out to have serious mental health problems.
Although the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans in New York went down during the first half of 2022, the overlap between hate crimes and bias attacks has remained. The New York Police Department announced that, of the 100 people arrested for hate crimes in the city during the first four months of 2022, half had previously been classified as emotionally disturbed.
Press believes that, because of these patterns of behaviour, the role that mental illness may play in racially motivated violence makes it a pending and necessary issue to resolve. And we must avoid the belief that such a debate would reinforce negative stereotypes, since people experiencing mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than to be its perpetrators. Another danger would be if mental illness were invoked to divert attention from the rhetoric and ideas that breed acts of violent extremism.
Edward Dunbar, professor of psychology at the University of California, a researcher on bias-motivated crime, believes that it is not surprising that during the pandemic some people with mental disorders committed aggressive acts, because of the constant anti-Asian speeches in the public debate.
What Press exposes in his article is that most of the mentally ill people who were arrested for attacking Asian people in New York City during the pandemic were not only mentally ill, but homeless.
The community organization The Anti Police-Terror Project proclaimed in a propaganda leaflet that mental illness is not a crime, advocating keeping such people out of the criminal justice system.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, has proposed creating a separate classification for mentally ill offenders as a way of highlighting that their cases are different. The goal would be for these people to receive treatment rather than incarceration. The imposition of harsh criminal penalties on these offenders is perhaps ineffective.
A better approach would be to invest resources in the flawed mental health systems that leave so many highly unstable people without long-term care. Addressing other social problems would also be useful, as a growing body of research suggests that people with severe mental illness are more likely to carry out violent acts when exposed to other risk factors, such as traumatic childhood experiences, financial instability, or living in high-crime neighbourhoods. Treatment alone would not solve these problems, but locking these people in prisons won’t make them go away either.