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Psychiatry, Justice, and Law

A preoccupation with the connection between psychiatry and the law permeates throughout Szasz’s work. This applies to involuntary commitment laws and patients’ rights as well as to the criminal justice system. His first article on this subject was published in 1956. His first book that appeared after The Myth of Mental Illness was Law, Liberty and Psychiatry. It is an examination of and commentary on all intersections between justice and psychiatry, based on the premises developed in The Myth of Mental Illness. More recently this preoccupation is expressed in numerous letters he sends to editors, for instance regarding the criminal procedures against Sirhan (Robert Kennedy’s murderer) and Hinckley (who tried to assassinate Reagan in 1981).

The most important axiom expressed in these writings is: in a free society, as a democracy purports to be, there should be only one system of social control and constraint, namely, the criminal justice system. Criminal law should stipulate clearly what is prohibited and how the violator will be punished. Justice should be applied without discrimination. This means that identical violations will lead to identical punishments, regardless of the perpetrators’ personal traits or idiosyncrasies. This is the “Rule of Law.” The same principle determines that a person who has not violated any law may not be punished and should remain free. Szasz categorically rejects psychiatric involuntary hospitalization, which he considers persecution and punishment for people who have not violated the law. Thus psychiatry is an oppressive social institution alongside the criminal justice system.

This does not mean that Szasz advocates that “everyone who has done something wrong should go to prison” as Matza claims in an interview with Weis. Szasz posits the mirror image of this statement: someone who has not violated the law should not be locked up. To a certain point, however, Matza’s view can be considered as implied by Szasz’s position. A person who has violated the law should be punished for the violation in accordance with legitimate law, and no other way. Trimbos’s characterization of Szasz as a proponent of “law and order” is, in view of the above, incomplete, to say the least. It is incorrect if the implication is that Szasz believes existing laws to be sacred. Szasz in fact vehemently criticizes various laws, or points out that they are incompatible with the United States Constitution. Nor can Szasz’s heartfelt advocacy for recognition of the differences between individuals and the right to express those differences be construed as advocating “order.” Szasz’s position is that psychiatry inasmuch as it functions as an extralegal institution of social control and oppression should be abolished.
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