August 14, 2011

What Should Happen With Someone Like Markuze?

Dennis MarkuzeThe atheist blogosphere has been buzzing about Dennis Markuze (aka, David Mabus) following the apparent success of a petition calling on the Montreal Police to investigate him for sending death threats to countless atheists. Some are focusing on the criminal act of making death threats and calling for Markuze to be arrested and charged. Others are of the opinion that Markuze is suffering from mental illness and calling for some sort of involuntary treatment. Needless to say, there is considerable frustration about why neither of these outcomes happened some time ago. While understandable, it is important to recognize that some of this frustration is based on a lack of understanding about how the criminal justice and mental health systems are designed to work.

To most observers, the most frustrating aspect of the Markuze situation is that the police appear to have done nothing (until very recently) in spite of years of escalating behavior. I can neither excuse nor condemn the actions of the Montreal Police. I do not know the nature of the complaints they received before the petition, nor do I know what they might have done with these complaints. It does not look like they did much of anything, but this is only speculation on my part. Perhaps they had insufficient evidence linking the threats to Markuze. And perhaps they did indeed drop the ball. Hopefully, the combination of the petition and the sudden media coverage in Montreal will prompt additional action.

The Criminal Justice Route

One possible outcome here is that the Montreal Police investigate Markuze, gather sufficient evidence, and charge him with a crime. Making death threats is likely a criminal offense. If they can gather enough evidence to conduct a successful criminal prosecution against Markuze, this is one possible course of action. If successful, Markuze would conceivable be incarcerated for a relatively brief period of time during which he may or may not receive treatment for whatever mental health problems he may have.

The main benefit about this sort of outcome would be that he would end up with a criminal record and would thus be on the radar of law enforcement. If he did eventually harm someone, nobody could claim surprise.

The Mental Health Route

I do not know whether Markuze suffers from a mental illness. Maybe someone else has his medical records, has spoken with his parents, or collected other valuable diagnostic information. I have not. Unfortunately, a lack of information has not stopped some otherwise rational people from making suspect claims on the subject. According to PZ Myers (Pharyngula):
I am not a psychologist, but anyone who writes those disconnected rambling death threats, and does nothing else all day long, is mentally disturbed.
I do not agree with this claim. If PZ is claiming that anyone who spams the sort of garbage Markuze spams is necessarily suffering from a mental disorder, he's wrong.

If Markuze does in fact suffer from mental illness, the court could offer treatment as an alternative to prison. But we no longer live in an era where Markuze can be involuntarily hospitalized just because we might desire it. He'd need to be so impaired that he was an imminent danger to himself or others. And "imminent" is not usually interpreted as emailing threats to strangers in other cities.

The sad reality is that people slip through the cracks of our mental health system every day. I have experienced this while working in community mental health and while working in psychiatric hospitals. The system is not adequately funded, and most of the laws are set up to make it fairly difficult to compel someone to receive treatment who does not want to do so. This can indeed be frustrating, but I'll gladly accept frustration over surrendering the civil liberties such laws protect.