Diminished responsibility is a legal term that describes an approach to defending clients. When someone uses this defensive approach, he or she isn't claiming total innocence for the action. Instead, the claim gives judges and juries a way to offer lesser sentences for guilty verdicts based on mental problems the accused person may have been suffering from. This is a controversial approach to legal defense in many places, and some experts feel it has been abused on occasion. Others see it as a necessary option to allow for the required level of flexibility in legal sentencing for judges and juries.
Many different kinds of mental problems can be used to claim diminished responsibility, and the laws may vary drastically in different jurisdictions. For example, there have been cases where people have used this defense while suffering from hypoglycemia or depression, while others have used it because of mental retardation or diseases like schizophrenia. In some jurisdictions, diminished responsibility defenses can't be used for people who suffer from personality disorders.
Some people feel these defenses have a tendency to allow murderers and other criminals to get light punishments. There is often a worry that juries and judges who wouldn't let someone go free based on an insanity plea may be more likely to give light sentences for diminished responsibility. There is also a concern that it may be too easy for lawyers to use expert testimony as a way to sway juries with false claims. This could potentially muddy the waters regarding levels of guilt, and some experts worry that lawyers might use this method to confuse jurors.
In some places, lawmakers have passed measures that make diminished responsibility defenses illegal. Others feel that this defense is needed badly by jurors and judges in order to make fair decisions. They argue that there are cases where it isn't a simple question of guilt or innocence, and they suggest that shades of gray are needed to give the fairest sentences.
One of the main alternatives to a diminished responsibility defense is the insanity defense. This is often used in similar situations, but it only works for "not guilty" pleas. In an insanity defense, the accused individual claims that his thinking capacity is so unhinged that he can't be held responsible at all. People who oppose the diminished responsibility defense often favor insanity defenses and similar approaches because they often have a higher burden of proof, which could make them harder to abuse.