After pleading guilty to his 11th random assault, Mohammed Majidpour was released from jail last month, on the condition that he stay at a downtown Vancouver homeless shelter.
He had been in pretrial detention for nearly a year. In order to secure his freedom, the 36-year-old had also agreed to many other conditions, including that he stay away from the illicit opioids and stimulants that had fuelled his previous bouts of psychosis. He was also required to check in regularly with his probation officer on the city’s Downtown Eastside, to ensure he was sticking to a plan crafted by the justice system to protect the public and help him improve his life.
It’s unclear whether he ever reported to the homeless shelter. Within five days of his release, he had allegedly failed to meet his officer. Almost a month later, in early September, he was arrested for this breach of his probation and released on a promise to show up in court again at the beginning of October.
Earlier this year, The Globe and Mail chronicled Mr. Majidpour’s nine-year run of convictions for shoplifting offences and random assaults, a case study in the systemic gaps that allow a tiny number of people – most of them dealing with the triple crises of homelessness, complex mental health issues and long-standing addictions – to continue assaulting strangers in cities across British Columbia. The province’s Attorney-General, Niki Sharma, has said Mr. Majidpour’s saga is a result of the justice system’s failure to provide adequate mental health care.
This latest turn in Mr. Majidpour’s life highlights another troubling pattern in the province’s handling of repeat offenders: Often, the conditions of their release leave them one slight misstep away from returning to homelessness.
Mr. Majidpour’s most recent assault conviction was for attacking Katie Nguyen Ngo, a 20-year-old university student, as she walked to class last fall. He hit her in the head with a pole while shouting at her to “go back to China,” though she is Vietnamese Canadian.
Last month, he pleaded guilty to that, and also to setting fire to the tail light of a car at a nearby Catholic church later that day, as well as stealing $330 worth of leggings from an H&M store. He committed the theft just 148 minutes after being released from jail for the assault on Ms. Nguyen Ngo. (At the time of the assault, he was on probation for an earlier shoplifting charge and had already breached the conditions of his release by failing to make it across town for treatment at a mental health clinic.)
For those crimes, he was given his 14th one-day prison sentence on Aug. 2. The judge who presided over the case had little choice but to hand down a minimal sentence, because federal law required the court to credit Mr. Majidpour for the time he had spent in pre-trial custody. His arrest a month later for not meeting with his parole officer was the seventh time he had been charged for breaching bail or probation conditions.
The facility where Mr. Majidpour was ordered to stay after his release is the Salvation Army’s Belkin House shelter. The Globe visited the shelter several times over the past month. None of a handful of residents shown Mr. Majidpour’s photo remembered seeing him there this summer.
The Salvation Army does not comment on individual cases. The health authority that oversees Mr. Majidpour’s court-ordered counselling and his methadone treatment for opioid addiction also doesn’t comment in these circumstances, and neither does BC Corrections, which is in charge of overseeing his release.
As a result, The Globe and Mail was unable to learn whether Mr. Majidpour has adhered to the other 13 conditions of his probation.
The provincial government wouldn’t say whether Mr. Majidpour is one of the roughly 30 repeat violent offenders being monitored in Vancouver by special teams of Crown prosecutors, police and probation officers. The government created the teams earlier this year as part of its response to public outcry over the justice system’s high-profile struggles with this type of offender.
Amanda Butler, a Simon Fraser University criminology professor who co-authored a report on prolific offenders for the provincial government, said Mr. Majidpour’s latest release and subsequent arrest show how the system fails people like him, and their victims.
“I highly doubt that anybody on this team – the lawyer, the judiciary or the Crown – are looking at this case and saying, ‘We’ve really set this person up for success,’” Dr. Butler said.
Jayde Niefer, the public defender who represented Mr. Majidpour in his latest set of criminal hearings, declined to comment directly on his case. In general, she said, housing is the biggest unmet need for people being released from custody.
Too often, she said, people are released to homeless shelters. Some, she said, decide to spend their $500 shelter allowances on tiny rooms in single-room occupancy buildings, where bathrooms are shared in dorm-style settings and living conditions are often unsanitary. She said she helps sign clients up for BC Housing’s official waiting list for social housing, but tells them their chances of getting units are “pie in the sky.”
“I’d love to have him or another client released and [say], ‘Here’s your housing that you’ve been needing for five, 10, 15 years and it’s all set up for you upon your release, but that’s just not realistic,” Ms. Niefer said.
BC Corrections said in a statement that it tries to help people secure housing support when they are released, but does not collect statistics on where people end up after being sentenced to probation.
Psychiatrist Bill MacEwan and a team of health and corrections professionals serve a rotating group of up to 35 people at the Downtown Community Court, a pilot project opened in 2008 to help chronic offenders in Vancouver’s core with housing, mental health and addictions, in exchange for guilty pleas. He said his team considers it a success if 10 per cent of their clients secure housing after being released from jail.
Dr. MacEwan would not comment on Mr. Majidpour, who has been sentenced in many previous cases in the community court. But, he said, Belkin House, which houses people five to a room and strictly prohibits inebriation, is excellent. He added that Vancouver needs twice as many shelter beds for people being released from jail.
When people on bail or probation are homeless it becomes difficult to help them with essential care, such as taking their methadone or attending counselling sessions, Dr. MacEwan said. He added that the most valuable member of his team is a community outreach worker who uses his vast knowledge of the Downtown Eastside to find missing clients.
At Mr. Majidpour’s Aug. 2 sentencing, the presiding judge, B.C. Provincial Court Justice Patricia Stark, cited a psychiatric assessment done at the start of the summer, which found him very likely to reoffend “in a violent manner” if his long-standing substance-use disorders and lack of housing were not addressed.
Mr. Majidpour has no family or friends in Vancouver, his hometown, but does have two estranged younger siblings in the Philippines. The court heard that he first became addicted to opioids in his mid-20s after getting a prescription to help with the pain of an infection from dental surgery. Mr. Majidpour, a Crown prosecutor said, has shown little remorse for his past crimes, instead justifying them as attempts to express his frustration with his situation.
Ms. Niefer told the judge that Mr. Majidpour would not agree to live at a treatment facility. A court-appointed psychiatrist said he should stay at such a facility for a year, in order to heal the disorders that fuel his periodic psychosis.
The judge could not force Mr. Majidpour into treatment. Typically in B.C., only people certified under the province’s Mental Health Act are placed in involuntary treatment for mental health and substance use issues. In the criminal system, people can be forced into treatment if they are found not criminally responsible for their actions, or if treatment is needed to get them healthy enough to continue going to court.
Dr. Butler said Mr. Majidpour would ideally have been forced into a year-long intensive drug rehabilitation program. Her report to the provincial government recommends that B.C. explore creating involuntary treatment laws similar to those that exist in Britain. The provincial government has said over the past year that it is reviewing this idea.
Under the British system, any person accused of a crime who has complex mental health issues and presents a risk of harming others can be diverted to a hospital – or, if they have exhausted all options for voluntary care, they can be sent to a type of specialized mental health facility called a “low secure unit.”
Ms. Nguyen Ngo, Mr. Majidpour’s latest assault victim, said she was heartened at his sentencing hearing in August when she saw he had put on weight, received a haircut and appeared to be in better health. “I thought, ‘Oh, good for you,’” she said.
She is also doing better. She said she had debilitating concussion symptoms after the attack, but that they subsided noticeably in April. Still, she no longer studies late into the night, because she needs plenty of rest to avoid headaches.
Attending Mr. Majidpour’s various court dates was uncomfortable for her, she added. The extreme poverty, drug addiction and mental illness that permeates Vancouver’s downtown core is a constant reminder of the assault.
“It just gives me chills running down my back, and it is hard for me to take,” she said.