When I lived in Boston many years ago, there was a mentally ill woman who roamed the streets of Harvard Square spitting at strolling pedestrians.
With great precision, she could land a spit bomb from at least 20 feet away. I always ran quickly across the street whenever I saw her coming.
One day I didn't make it across in time and she hit me with a cluster bomb. Naturally, I wanted to strike back, but looking into her forlorn eyes, I lost the will for revenge. It is not morally right to strike back at those whose spirit and mind are bent out of shape by disease.
So, too, when it comes to the law.
Legal rules are designed to speak to members of a moral community. To be a member, you need not only to understand the rules but also to be able to grasp their moral significance.
When Johnny shoots his brother on the orders of Lucifer, he is not a member of the moral community. Neither is the Boston spitter when she hits my neck. The truly mentally ill do not commit crimes they just trigger tragedies on occasion.
Yet the impulse to blame and punish those suffering from mental disorders is endemic to our criminal justice system.
The recently publicized case of former Second City and Saturday Night Live comedian Tony Rosato, who faded into oblivion while languishing in jail for the past two years awaiting trial for a charge of criminal harassment, is not atypical.
Rosato apparently suffers from Capgras syndrome, a mental disorder characterized by the recurring delusion that the people one knows have been replaced by imposters.
While labouring under this delusion, he allegedly engaged in threatening and harassing behaviour toward his "imposter" wife.
If Rosato were not mentally ill, he would have been out of the system long ago, and even if he had been convicted at trial, he would likely have been given a non-custodial sentence or a short stint in jail.
But people with psychiatric disorders get lost in a criminal justice system that lacks both the resources and the sensitivity required to treat the mentally ill with dignity.
Legal professionals simply do not know how to deal with special-needs offenders. Harmless but eccentric, they're often left to languish in jail simply because they can be disruptive and difficult to manage.
To aggravate the problem, they're often presumed to be dangerous, so justice officials feel some level of unjustified comfort in leaving them in jail pending trial.
The fact is, the vast majority of people who suffer from serious mental disorders are not dangerous.
Sure, some pretty brutal murders have been committed by psychotics, but most urban violence is the product of certifiably sane people. There is little to fear from people who believe they are being controlled by remote devices operated by the CIA.
Strange and erratic behaviour is not a precursor to random violence.
In recent years, many jurisdictions have set up special mental health courts modelled on a newly emerging paradigm of "therapeutic jurisprudence" or "problem-solving courts."
Under this model, offenders whose illness has contributed to the commission of a minor crime have their charges withdrawn or stayed upon the completion of a treatment program.
Toronto has operated a mental health court since 1999. Despite chronic underfunding, evaluation reports I've read suggest that these courts are serving their intended purpose of facilitating the treatment of disordered offenders.
It is naive to believe that the solution is to simply send all mentally ill offenders to a hospital and all sane offenders to a jail. The line between mad and bad is very blurred.
Even when the line can be clearly drawn, relegating the mad to the mental health system is often just a temporary solution. The success rate of psychiatric intervention has not been demonstrably promising for many disorders.
Still, recognizing that psychiatric treatment is horribly underdeveloped does not justify the warehousing of thousands of mentally ill offenders in correctional facilities for relatively minor offences.
Tony Rosato had celebrity status, so attention was brought to his plight and criminal justice officials are now scrambling to fix the problem.
But thousands of mentally ill offenders without fame and fortune remain locked down in a punitive setting with no prospect of treatment and no hope of recovery.
Alan Young is a professor of law at Osgoode Hall. His column appears in NOW every other week.