A group of nine major mental health organizations has banded together to plead with the federal government to reconsider legislation that would make it more difficult for mentally ill offenders found not criminally responsible to be released from prison.
“This legislation appears to have arisen to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Paul Fedoroff, president of the Canadian Academy of Psychiatry, one of the organizations on Parliament Hill Tuesday.
The group of organizations says the new rules proposed in the Conservative government’s Bill C-54 are unnecessary and add to the stigma that all mentally ill people are violent criminals. It also said the changes may result in more mentally ill offenders serving time in prisons, not mental health facilities.
“We understand the need to protect Canadians from individuals who commit violent crimes,” said Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada.
“What this bill has done is tell Canadians that they should be afraid of people with a mental illness.”
Summerville said 97 per cent of people with mental illness don’t commit crimes, and the recidivism rate of re-offending is much lower than the average offender population, at 7.5 per cent compared with 45 per cent.
The bill, which has yet to go to committee for amendments and consultations, makes public safety a paramount factor for review boards to determine an offender’s release.
It also allows judges to designate some offenders as “high risk,” meaning they can be detained for longer periods of time.
As it stands, the law exempts the accused from being criminally responsible for an offence if they were suffering from a mental disorder that rendered them incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of their action. They can serve time in hospitals and a review board determines when they can be released.
The alliance – which includes the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Canadian Association of Social Workers – said none of its experts were invited to consult with the government on the legislation. A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said several members representing the coalition have met with the minister’s office.
Nicholson’s spokeswoman Julie Di Mambro said the government believes that the measures contained in the legislation are responsible and necessary.
“The measures contained in our legislation are designed to apply to the most dangerous and egregious of cases (i.e. murder, sexual assault). We believe these measures are responsible and carefully crafted,” she said in an email.
“Furthermore, in order to be designated ‘high risk,’ the Crown would need to put forward an application and it is a judge who is ultimately responsible for making such a determination.”
She added that the government takes mental health seriously, and has established a Mental Health Commission and invested over $376 million in research.
Liberal MP Bob Rae, who has spoken publicly about his battles with depression, said the Conservatives have an obligation to show that the current system is broken, but they haven’t done that.
While the public has a “sense of frustration” about the crimes, we have to recognize the basic principle of criminal law.
“The biggest problem we face in our criminal justice system right now is that there are so many people we are currently in jail who have seriously mental health problems,” he said.
“That’s the real problem, and that’s not a problem that the Conservatives have really been prepared to address.”
NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin agreed the bill doesn’t appear to actually make the system better.
“I just at this point in time can’t see how I can be convinced, and convince my colleagues from the NDP that we would support that bill,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s doing what they claim it’s going to do.”
She added it could have dangerous public safety consequences, because it could lead to lawyers not risking a longer not criminally responsible sentence, and having their mentally ill clients enter the regular prison system.
One thing the mental health groups and the government agree on is that the bill allows victims to be more involved in the criminal justice process.
Summerville said the group is asking to “be engaged” with the government on the bill.
“What we wished is that … they had had worked collaboratively and in a consultative process with us in the very beginning,” he said.
“Then we wouldn’t have the flaws that are in this bill.”
© Shaw Media, 2013