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Critics slam new ‘high-risk’ designation for mentally ill offenders

Federal provisions that would impede the release of "high-risk" mentally ill offenders are being condemned within the psychiatric establishment as a senseless, counterproductive move.

In a response to the proposed legislation, Bill C-54, the Canadian Psychiatric Association has warned that it would jam hospital beds, punish people whose only crime was to be sick, and distort a carefully calibrated regime that amply protects the public.

"The implementation of a high-risk category is unlikely to achieve its goal of increased safety, but will be a substantial drain on resources, pulling scarce forensic resources away from treating patients, and into the courts," the CPA said.

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It also warned that the provisions are likely to lose in a legal showdown over their constitutionality.

Ontario Review Board chair Justice Richard Schneider – a leading expert in mental illness and the law – also warned Friday that if patients cannot be released at appropriate times, scarce beds will be occupied by those who don't need to be there, he said.

"It would cause extreme slow-downs at the entrance door to the system immediately upon a verdict of either NCR [not criminally responsible] or unfit," he said in an interview.

Judge Schneider also said that mentally ill offenders are likely to be advised by their lawyers to take their chances on going to prison rather than risk pursuing a defence of not criminally responsible and being institutionalized indefinitely.

"They will put more mentally ill people into our jails and correctional facilities," Judge Schneider said. "And worse still, they have the very real potential to make our system much more dangerous – not less dangerous."

The current regime was created in the 1990s, after the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a more humane system. It features highly qualified review boards that hold hearings for each patient at least once a year. They can mandate more treatment or impose a controlled release plan.

"There are approximately 5,000 dispositions rendered in Canada annually, and typically, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of significant problems with those accused," Judge Schneider said.

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However, under the proposed legislation, mentally ill offenders designated as "high risk" could not be assessed by a provincial review board unless a court decides to revoke the designation. They would be ineligible for unescorted passes into the community and could see their review period extended from one year up to three years.

Judge Schneider warned that the government is threatening to destroy an intricate balance between civil liberties and the safety of the public based on three notorious crimes committed by men who had never even been in the forensic psychiatrist system.

The cases involved Vincent Li, who decapitated and cannibalized a bus passenger, and two men who murdered their children while in psychotic states – Allan Schoenborn and Guy Turcotte.

Judge Schneider said it is perverse to indict the NCR regime based on a trio of "outlier" cases that involved men who had never been assessed under the review-board system.

"We are best to have our policy and legislation flow from science rather than allow it to be pulled and contorted by reflex and emotion," he said. "Rather than turn to science, the proponents of Bill C-54 have embraced the American 'tough on crime' approach … which seems to inevitably involve locking people up."

Julie Di Mambro, a federal Justice Department spokesperson, said the provisions will apply to very few offenders, so they are unlikely to have an effect on guilty pleas.

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She said the bill is in keeping with Supreme Court jurisprudence and that since the government has increased transfer payments to the provinces, it should alleviate the cost of any extra bed space in mental institutions.

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