A government bill aimed at restricting the release of “high-risk” mentally ill offenders will further stigmatize mental illness and could put public safety at risk, a coalition of some of Canada’s most well-known mental health groups says.
Nine national organizations focused on mental health, suicide prevention and social work say they are concerned with the changes proposed in Bill C-54 and are asking the government to amend the legislation before it becomes law. The bill would alter the rules for those found not criminally responsible for a crime, in part by giving judges new power to keep some people detained for longer.
“I think it’s fair to say that [in] the mental-health community, we all share similar concerns,” said Peter Coleridge, who heads the Canadian Mental Health Association. “The bottom line is we all feel the need for these changes to strike better balance between the needs and rights of both victims of crime, and those not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder.”
Mr. Coleridge will join representatives from several other mental-health organizations in Ottawa on Tuesday to call for fundamental changes to the proposed legislation. While many mental-health advocates say they support one aspect of the bill – meant to keep victims and their families better informed – there is widespread concern that the new “high-risk” designation will divert mentally ill offenders away from a system that can offer them treatment and into the country’s criminal justice system.
Under Canadian law, a court can find individuals not criminally responsible for a crime if they lacked the capacity to understand their own actions. The individuals are typically detained and treated in a hospital until a review board determines that they no longer pose a threat to the public and comes up with a plan for their release.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has argued that certain offenders who commit violent crimes should be subject to different rules that could keep them detained for significantly longer periods of time. The new legislation would allow judges to designate some violent offenders as “high-risk,” a change that would lengthen the time between reviews of their detention and prevent them from being considered for release at all until a judge revokes the designation.
Chris Summerville, who heads the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, said that his organization isn’t advocating for the release of anyone who genuinely poses a risk to the public.
“But to make case law based on high-profile cases, it’s more based on fear and misleading facts,” he said.
Research suggests that individuals found not criminally responsible are significantly less likely to commit another crime than those coming out of the criminal justice system, and mental-health groups say there is no legitimate correlation between high-profile crimes and high-risk offenders.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Nicholson wrote in an e-mail that the government believes the changes are necessary.
“Many groups and individuals believe the government is taking much needed action,” Julie Di Mambro wrote.