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Canada New legislation would keep more mentally ill offenders behind bars

Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson listens to a question following a press conference on Thursday, March 15, 2012.

Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government is making it more difficult for mentally ill offenders found not criminally responsible for their crimes to be released from custody.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code on Thursday, the latest in a series of tough-on-crime initiatives by the Conservative government that come after lobbying by victims.

The Tories plan to introduce a new bill in the House of Commons early next year that would make the safety of the public the paramount factor for review boards that determine an offender's release.

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Mr. Nicholson offered few details of the mechanics of the new system, saying they would be unveiled when the new bill is tabled in Parliament.

"We are listening to victims, as well as the provinces and territories, who are telling us that the safety of the public should be the paramount consideration in the decision-making process involving mentally disordered accused persons," Mr. Nicholson said.

The law exempts someone from being criminally responsible for an offence they committed if they were suffering from a mental disorder that rendered them incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of their action.

The minister was joined in Montreal for his announcement by Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, whose daughter was raped and murdered 10 years ago.

"Many groups of victims of crime feel that the present legal system is very complicated. The families of victims want to have an opportunity to be better informed ... and be included in our justice system," Mr. Boisvenu said.

Various groups have long sought changes to limit the ability of such people to go before a board to gain their freedom.

Three recent Canadian cases – in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec – brought the issue to national prominence.

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In most cases, those declared not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder return to society after they have received treatment and a provincial review board has deemed them stable enough.

The vast majority of the offenders resume their normal lives without any supervision at all.

That riles the families of many victims, including the mother of a man brutally killed aboard a bus in Manitoba.

Carol de Delley's son, Tim McLean, was beheaded by Vince Li aboard a Greyhound bus in 2008. She has advocated for Tim's Law, which would prevent those found not criminally responsible of a crime from being released into the community without serving a minimum amount of time.

"Unless the government intends to change the Criminal Code to hold mentally ill killers responsible for a crime, I don't see it making much of a difference, except in the frequency of review board hearings," she said in an e-mail Thursday before the announcement.

"Just as a drunk driver who kills didn't mean to do it an individual who is medication dependant and chooses not to take those meds should be held responsible for their subsequent behaviour and crimes," she said.

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Mr. Li has been allowed greater freedoms, and recently was allowed escorted visits to nearby Selkirk, Man. His yearly review is scheduled for next spring.

The case of former cardiologist Guy Turcotte has created considerable anger in Quebec.

Mr. Turcotte was found not criminally responsible of killing his two children in a controversial verdict rendered by a jury in July, 2010. His wife had been having an affair and was planning to leave him and, Mr. Turcotte said, he was so distraught he experienced blackouts and couldn't remember repeatedly stabbing his children.

The controversy reignited one year later, when Mr. Turcotte fought before a mental health review board to determine whether he could regain his freedom.

A ruling from that tribunal last June gave Mr. Turcotte limited freedom and the ability to leave the facility for short periods, but ordered him to otherwise remain at a Montreal psychiatric hospital.

Mr. Turcotte is scheduled to return before the tribunal before the end of this year to see whether he can convince the review board to grant him further freedoms.

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Mr. Turcotte's ex-wife, Isabelle Gaston, tearfully expressed her anger over the process. Quebec's Court of Appeal has yet to hear arguments from the Crown aimed at sending the case back to trial and it isn't expected to until sometime next year.

In British Columbia, Allan Schoenborn, a father from Merritt, B.C., killed his three children in April of 2008 but was also found not criminally responsible in 2010.

He asked for, and got, a delay in his latest psychiatric review until next year because he didn't think it was right to have a hearing close to the fourth anniversary of his children's murders.

Mr. Schoenborn was found not criminally responsible for the murders and is confined to the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Port Coquitlam, but is allowed an annual review of his case to determine whether he should be given any liberties.

The B.C. government has been pushing for changes to the Criminal Code to scrap the mandatory yearly review.

Before Thursday's announcement, the federal Justice Department had commissioned a national survey that found that nearly 90 per cent of Canadians polled believe offenders found either unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible should remain under supervision indefinitely for public safety reasons.

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