Offenders with mental health needs shouldn’t be in jail: task force report

Global News/File

Offenders with mental health needs should not be in jail, a task force concluded Wednesday, as it recommended ways Ontario can put fewer people in pre-trial detention, particularly those with mental illness and addiction issues.

The task force was established to look at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre after overcrowding got so bad that inmates were reportedly forced to sleep on mattresses in the showers.

It issued a report with 42 recommendations and many are aimed at the correctional system province-wide.

“In appropriate circumstances, offenders with mental health needs should not be in correctional institutions due to the complexities associated with mental health issues and the limited ability of correctional facilities to provide appropriate care,” said the report.

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Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi said his ministry has to do a better job providing mental health supports, but it’s not within his power to dictate that offenders with mental health needs should not be jailed.

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“Where our hands are tied, and I have to be very frank, is that when it comes to decisions around who gets bail or not, that’s not a decision that I control or the Ministry of the Atorney General controls. That’s a judiciary decision,” he said.

“However, if we could provide better diversion programming, that may compel the judiciary, they may feel comfortable that this person could be better served somewhere in the community.”

The report recommended the government develop a policy for police services to divert “low-risk individuals” away from pre-trial detention and designate classes of offences for which accused would presumptively be released from police stations.

The government should also implement more diversion programs alternatives to criminal prosecution – for people with mental illness and addiction issues, the task force recommended. And the courts shouldn’t impose bail conditions that are likely to criminalize the symptoms of a mental illness, it added.

Justices of the peace, who hear bail applications, should also be given more training on those matters, the task force recommended.

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Though the task force looked at one jail specifically, the report provides a blueprint for provincial correctional facilities, Naqvi said.

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“The challenges that we’re seeing in (the Ottawa jail) are, I think, quite symptomatic of challenges we see across the province,” he said.

In the last decade, the percentage of male inmates admitted to the Ottawa detention centre with “substance alerts” on file rose from 25 to 40 in 2014-15, the report said. Given those numbers, the government should expand programs and support for addiction issues, the task force recommended.

The report also urged the government to transfer the delivery of health care in provincial correctional institutions to the Ministry of Health. Naqvi said preliminary discussions have started.

Ontario is in the midst of a review of segregation policies, and Naqvi has said hard caps are being considered on time inmates can spend in segregation.

The task force recommended a “significant reduction” in the use of segregation at the Ottawa facility – nearly 80 per cent of the 130 inmates who responded to a survey for the task force said they had spent time in segregation – and noted some members wanted the practice abolished entirely.

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