On Wednesday, July 27, 2016, Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote an opinion that John Hinckley, Jr. no longer posed a danger to himself or others and should be released from federal supervision. Hinckley had been found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) in June 1982 for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in March 1981. Since his acquittal he has been under federal supervision, first in St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, D.C. and more recently splitting time between there and Williamsburg, Virginia with family and friends.
So what connects Hinckley with PRA? A lot. Without his heinous act and the drive for insanity defense reform that followed his acquittal, PRA would never have happened. How so?
When PRA was founded in December 1987, it had one project. That project, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, was an eight-state study of insanity defense reform. Looking at data we were going to gather from California, Georgia, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin, we set out to determine what really changed after all the legal maneuvering and political posturing there was to tighten the NGRI defense after Hinckley’s acquittal. This project supported the entire complement of four PRA staff, including three currently here: Pam Robbins, Lisa Callahan, and me. This was the cornerstone of PRA.
The research ultimately found little really changed in the eight study states. The systems found ways to detain defendants who before any legal revisions would probably have been found NGRI. The NGRI defense then and now has a high political profile, but is seldom used and rarely successful. In fact, Hinckley’s lengthy supervision long after the attending clinicians thought he was safe to discharge with certain conditions was a political statement. That statement is that our forensic systems often detain people who have a high political valence far beyond what is really clinically needed.
That being said, John Hinckley inadvertently helped make PRA a reality.
Want to learn more about PRA’s research on NGRI post-Hinckley? Read the PRA-authored book, Before and after Hinckley: evaluating insanity defense reform, or check out a selection of PRA’s reports:
- Insanity defense reform in the United States – post Hinckley (1987)
- Designing conditional release systems for insanity acquittees (1991)
- Forensic psychiatric inpatients served in the United States: regional and system differences (1991)
- The negligible effects of California’s 1982 reform of the insanity defense test (1991)
- Demythologizing inaccurate perceptions of the insanity defense (1994)