The Conservative government’s proposed new law aimed at making sure severely mentally ill offenders are not set free while they’re still dangerous is a fair and measured response to the problem of Vince Li, Allan Schoenborn and Guy Turcotte.
This is not about myth, stereotype or stigma. It’s about community protection in the face of individual dangers. It’s about Mr. Li, Mr. Schoenborn and Dr. Turcotte.
Mr. Li of Manitoba decapitated and ate body parts of a man sitting next to him on a bus. Mr. Schoenborn stabbed his three children to death in Merritt, B.C. Dr. Turcotte stabbed his two young children to death in Prévost, Que.
The mental health and justice systems made catastrophic mistakes in at least some of these cases; the violently ill Mr. Schoenborn, for instance, had been released after a travesty of a bail hearing.
The new law would remove excuses for any subsequent failures by setting this group apart. A Crown attorney would be able to ask a judge for a “high-risk designation” in violent crimes where there is a “substantial likelihood” of more violence or where the “brutal nature” of the crime suggests a grave risk of physical or psychological harm to another person in the future. The cases of Mr. Li, Mr. Schoenborn and Dr. Turcotte fit this designation.
Those designated would still be able to qualify for court-ordered release, if a review board says the high-risk designation no longer applies. But some individuals would have to wait up to three years for that review hearing; currently, the hearings are held annually. It would be better for all concerned to assess these individuals over three years instead of one. Dr. Turcotte was released within a year and a half of his trial, on condition that he undergo psychotherapy. “It’s essential that his team be on hand in case his state deteriorates,” said the head of the panel that released him. The statement does not inspire confidence.
This is not a punitive law, nor does it arbitrarily lump together all those found not criminally responsible for their actions by reason of a mental disorder – what used to be known as insanity. It would explicitly make public safety the most important consideration in any release. It is hard to believe that it was not already explicit.