The inquest into the 2007 death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith in a federal women’s prison seems nearly as cursed as her short life. A coroner retired; a Crown counsel died. It will be many months till it is under way. But that doesn’t mean Canada needs to wait to draw the lessons from her death and life:
Criminalization of young people with severe mental disorders accomplishes little apart from destroying the young person involved. (Lesson One.)
Mental health systems for teens with severe disorders are woefully inadequate, leaving the justice and corrections systems no choice but to step in. (Lesson Two.)
Ashley Smith’s life was a horror story. It is a story that has no place in Canada. Yet Canada almost certainly has other Ashley Smiths. The schools often know quite early when a child is severely troubled, but this country does not do a very good job of getting them help, fast. Small problems become big.
Ms. Smith attempted no murders, set no fires, committed no sexual assaults. She was “oppositional,” and didn’t respond to punishment. Before she turned 15, she stopped attending school; no school would have her. Owing to a lack of youth mental health facilities, she wound up in the New Brunswick Youth Centre, a youth prison, and spent most of her time in segregation – a 9 feet by 6 feet cell, 7.5 feet high. She wound up in adult prison because of the assaults on staff she committed in youth prison. There, in violation of federal corrections policy, she spent 11½ months in a similarly segregated cell, before tying a ligature around her neck.
“Parents despair in disbelief that they have to stand by and watch their children commit a crime in order to get services for them, yet they admit to having done it,” Bernard Richard, the New Brunswick ombudsman and child and youth advocate, wrote in 2008. “Judges have been saying from the bench for years that these children don’t belong in jails, but they keep sending them there because, when faced with an individual case, there is nothing else they can do.”
It shouldn’t take an inquest to tell us that criminalizing Ashley Smith led nowhere, and that Canada has much yet to do to identify and support the most troubled young people.