The federal government seized on the news this week that Vince Li, who beheaded a man on a Greyhound bus six years ago, has been granted unescorted trips outside the forensic psychiatric hospital where he’s been in custody.
“The provincial decision to grant Mr. Li unescorted trips around town is an insult to Tim McLean, the man he beheaded and cannibalized,” Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said in a news release.
“Canadians expect that their justice system will keep them safe from high-risk individuals.”
The proposed law, now in Senate hearings, would mean these cases only get reviewed once every three years, instead of annually, and would put more decision-making power in the hands of the courts, rather than the people treating and assessing the offenders.
Would tougher rules for the most severely mentally ill offenders make the public safer? Would they make it less likely people like Vince Li reoffend?
All evidence suggests the answer is no. And they could do the opposite.
“It is a poor case to use as the basis for a new national statute,” said Patrick Baillie, a psychologist with Alberta Health Services and legal council with Alberta Provincial Court.
“This is an individual who committed perhaps one of the most brutal offences in Canadian history but who did not have any previous criminal record, has responded extremely well to treatment, has been compliant with all the treatments put in front of him, including taking medication, who recognizes he has a serious mental illness.
“He is the type of person who has benefited from the NCR system, and from which society has benefited.”
And 30 unsupervised minutes a day is hardly a discharge from hospital, Baillie noted.
A study commissioned by the federal government found the recidivism rate for people deemed not criminally responsible is far lower than that of people sent to prison.
“There is absolutely no evidence that the current system of dealing with these mentally disordered offenders has any problems or any lack of public safety,” said Bernd Walter, Chair of B.C.’s Review Board.
He calls the NCR bill “the most nonsensical piece of social policy I’ve seen in my life.”
Many fear that if this law goes through it’ll just discourage lawyers from pleading not criminally responsible. That would mean more mentally ill people in a prison system that can’t treat them, that discharges them after a set period of time whether or not they still pose a threat.
“All of us are hearing stories of defence lawyers saying, ‘If this goes through, I would think twice before subjecting my client to the new system,'” Baillie said. “Perversely, the effect of the legislation becomes to increase public jeopardy.”
“If Vince Li, under the same circumstances, with the severity of the mental illness that he apparently had at the time of the offence, was in prison now, he would have been there for however many years it’s been, untreated,” Walter said.
“He would be back on the street, untreated and severely ill. So he would be as much or more dangerous as he was at the time of the offence.”