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Florida Faith Leaders Sign-On Letter in Support of Protecting People with Serious Mental Illness from the Death Penalty
To Governor DeSantis and Members of the Florida Legislature,
We, the undersigned faith leaders, reflecting a rich diversity of faith traditions, stand together in expressing our strong support for protecting people with serious mental illness from the death penalty in Florida.
As faith leaders, we are greatly concerned about the presence of violence in our communities. We support an approach to violence that is values- and evidence-based, prioritizes prevention, and centers healing for everyone impacted by crime. This approach requires that we treat people with serious mental illness differently in the criminal justice system.
The overwhelming majority of people with serious mental illness are not violent and will never commit violence. But for those that do, their illness is highly relevant and should be considered a categorical bar to execution, as intellectual disabilities are now.
Serious mental illness can lead to disabling conditions such as psychoses, delusions, and hallucinations. In people with these conditions, symptoms impair behavior and thoughts, leading to problems with judgment, reasoning, and impulse control.
These severe conditions compromise a person’s ability to protect themselves from violence and abuse, which increase the likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system. Within the criminal justice system, these conditions make a person with serious mental illness more vulnerable to injustices and abuse – even though they are inherently less morally culpable.
People with serious mental illness are disadvantaged in a number of ways in the criminal justice system. Stigma associated with mental illness can lead justice system actors, including jurors, to erroneously conflate mental illness with dangerousness. Symptoms can also be misinterpreted when defendants exhibit phobias or fears, inappropriate emotions or lack of emotion, or language difficulties. Serious mental illness interferes with a defendant’s ability to assist in his or her own defense, a bedrock justice principle. Acute symptoms impede everything from communication with lawyers to decision making – even presenting a challenge to a person’s capacity to understand his or her rights. As a result, people with serious mental illness are uniquely vulnerable to wrongful convictions, as well as to execution.
For these reasons, and because we believe in the sacredness of life and in the human capacity for redemption, we join with the more than 70 organizations from across Florida, including more than a dozen mental health organizations, that are calling on the Legislature to pass bipartisan legislation to exempt people with serious mental illness from the death penalty. We further express our sincere hope that the considerable savings realized from this legislation will be invested in victim support services, drug treatment programs, child and family services, and mental health care.
We thank you for your service to the State of Florida and pray that God’s steadfast love is revealed through you.