An Ontario review panel chair has inadvertently made the case for the Conservative government’s proposed new law aiming to keep the most dangerous mentally ill inmates off the streets. Justice Richard Schneider has shown why, in effect, the government was right to be skeptical of the power vested in the country’s provincial review boards.
Justice Schneider says people like Vince Li, a Manitoba man with schizophrenia who beheaded and cannibalized a stranger sitting next to him on a bus, probably wouldn’t be deemed a high-risk offender under the new law. Why not? Because in his view, very few people found not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder are a danger to the public, after treatment. His evidence: lower recidivism rates among this category of inmates compared with prisoners convicted of crimes.
His confidence in treatment and the medical profession’s ability to control the dangerous manifestations of illness from a small subset of the most mentally sick individuals is breathtaking. It is not a confidence widely shared by the Canadian public, and with good reason. Statistics on an entire group are irrelevant to those in that small subset, like Mr. Li, who have committed extraordinary crimes.
Here is what one psychiatrist who used to work in Ontario’s system for those not criminally responsible says: “Psychoses in an individual tend to follow a pattern. If you get paranoid when you’re psychotic once, you’re going to get paranoid in a similar way another time. If you get paranoid enough to kill once, you get paranoid enough to kill another time, if you’re left under similar circumstances.” People with schizophrenia may not accept they have a disease, but even those who do may have no insight when they are off their medication. This psychiatrist compared community supervision of people like Mr. Li to allowing babies to sit by a pool, subject to checks every five minutes. Drownings would occur.
It may not be possible ever to be confident that Mr. Li is an acceptable risk to set free. The stakes are too high to let him, and others like him, fall through the current system’s cracks.