Reinvigorating First Year Criminal Law: Integrating Mental Disability Issues into the Criminal Law Course


This article explores how mental disability issues can be incorporated into a traditional criminal law class, in order to enrich student understanding of both mental disability law and criminal law doctrine. The intersection of mental disability with the doctrinal aspects of criminal law can be broken into five major categories: 1) the justifications for punishment; 2) the definition of crime in general, e.g., the requirements of a voluntary act, mens rea, and causation; 3) the definition of particular crimes, such as murder, manslaughter, rape, and burglary; 4) defenses to crime, including mistake of law and of fact, as well as justification (including self-defense) and excuse (including insanity and duress); and 5) considerations in sentencing, including the death penalty and sex offenses. Citing examples from a variety of criminal law case books, the article suggests ways to incorporate mental disability issues seamlessly into the broader discussion of criminal responsibility and what constitutes just punishment.

The inclusion of mental disability law issues achieves several important goals. The first goal is to make explicit the tensions inherent in our criminal justice system, which assumes that behavior is “chosen” as it seeks to hold people accountable for their actions, even while an expanding body of scientific evidence demonstrates that much, if not all, human behavior is shaped profoundly by environmental and genetic factors. Normative questions of when a biological/psychological/environmental “explanation” for behavior ought to mitigate or excuse a person’s criminal responsibility permeate the criminal law course, arising in such diverse arenas as the purposes of punishment, the requirements of mens rea, actus reus, and causation, the substantive law of homicide, and affirmative defenses such as self-defense, insanity, and duress. Looking at these issues through the lens of mental disability makes apparent the complex moral and policy concerns that underlie every doctrinal question in criminal law. The second goal is to increase students’ awareness of, and comfort with, the language of neuroscience, psychiatry, and psychology, so that they can better understand and evaluate judicial opinions, legislative pronouncements, and other rhetoric in the public policy debate. The third goal is to help students understand the significant connections between gender discrimination and mental disability issues.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Health Law and Policy | Human Rights Law | Legal Education | Medical Jurisprudence

Date of this Version

December 2005