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Success stories at N.S. mental health court but no plans to expand

DARTMOUTH – It doesn’t look like your typical courtroom: there’s artwork on the wall and an inspirational message emblazoned above the judge’s seat.

“Just because you have a past does not mean you have no future,” is spelled out in glittery letters.

The mental health court, which is based at the Dartmouth Provincial Court, aims to treat and help Nova Scotians with mental disorders who have committed criminal offences.

But for Heather, a graduate of the program, it means much more.

“The people … they become your family. They become your support network,” said the 35-year-old, who didn’t want to give her last name. “They give you that second chance that you really need and to me that was a blessing – a blessing in disguise.”

Thirty-seven days after leaving the inpatient mental health unit at QEII’s Abbie J. Lane Building, Heather was arrested for impaired driving and faced serious charges including fleeing from police.

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“I was facing some serious jail time in my opinion and the Crown prosecutor actually said, ‘You don’t belong here’ and she referred me to the mental health court,” she said.

She was among more than 200 participants who were accepted into the program. During her year and a half with the court, she was given access to mental health and addictions counsellors. She was also expected to appear in court regularly for check-ins to update the judge on her accomplishments.

“They all believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself so that gave me the chance to be positive and to start looking forward. It was a great experience here and I thank them every day I wake up and get to see a blue sky.”

Heather is now out of the legal system and looking to return to school.

The mental health court marked its fifth anniversary on Wednesday by celebrating success stories like Heather’s.

Judge Pamela Williams said the program’s attention to support and follow-up is what makes it so effective.

“If they are sentenced to jail and then released with no support and no supervision, their likelihood of re-offending goes up exponentially,” Williams said.

“If they’re followed by us, they have frequent check-ins with the court. The clinicians are in at least weekly, sometimes daily — and in some instances during crisis — hourly contact with their clients and trying to connect them with services.”

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She said it was a better approach than having offenders in jail “only to be released and left with nothing” because that fostered a cycle of reoffending.

Kelly Rowlett, a defence lawyer with Nova Scotia Legal Aid who has been a part of the mental health court since its inception, said she has seen the program do wonders.

She said some clients do reoffend and return to the court, but she doesn’t view that as a failure.

“Yes they might commit further criminal offences from time to time, that’s not a failure. Yes they might go to an emergency department, that’s okay,” she said.

“I’m not saying it’s okay to commit criminal offence but what I’m saying is people do anyway. So what our job is to do, is decrease the cycle as best we can. It’s not perfection.”

The mental health court currently serves metro Halifax and there are no plans to expand it, although members of the mental health community would like to see its program offered elsewhere in the province.

There is currently an external review of the program being conducted at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, and Stephen Ayer, the executive director of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia hopes its findings will support expansion.

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“Hopefully (the report) will show that by having a court like this, not only will you reduce rates of people getting into conflict with the law once again, but also you reduce the amount of money that’s spent in the criminal justice system,” Ayer said.

“I’m hopeful that data will show that expanding this court to other areas of the province, particularly Cape Breton, would be cost effective.”

The review is expected to be completed by late 2014 or early 2015.