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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa to toughen rules for offenders found not criminally responsible

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces a new high risk category in courts to keep mentally ill criminals behind bars in Burnaby, British Columbia February 8, 2013.

Ben Nelms/Reuters

The Conservative government wants to toughen the rules for releasing individuals found not criminally responsible for a crime, a move the Prime Minister says will help deal with "glaring gaps" in the justice system.

Legislation the government introduced on Friday would allow courts to apply a "high-risk designation" to those deemed to pose a significant danger to the public. The designation would prevent any consideration of release until the person's high-risk status is revoked and severely limit opportunities for the individual to leave custody on a temporary pass.

At a press conference in Burnaby, B.C., Stephen Harper said violent individuals are too often released without any warning to victims' families. He said the case of Allan Schoenborn, a British Columbia man found not criminally responsible for killing his three children, exposed "glaring gaps" in the justice system. Mr. Schoenborn is in a psychiatric hospital, and his detention is reviewed annually.

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The changes would apply only to someone who has been found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible. Under Canadian law, someone can be found not criminally responsible if they lacked the capacity to understand what they did or the awareness that it was wrong because of a mental disorder.

Those individuals are referred to provincial and territorial review boards, which can discharge them with or without conditions or keep them in custody at a hospital.

The bill would flag public safety as the primary consideration for review boards deciding whether to release such people, Mr. Harper said. It could also require that victims be notified whenever someone found not criminally responsible is released and allow orders to be issued preventing communication between an accused and victims.

In addition, the period between reviews for a high-risk person could be up to three years instead of the current annual review.

An inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, a troubled teenager who strangled herself to death in a prison in Kitchener, Ont., has highlighted issues concerning the treatment of mentally ill inmates in Canada. Corrections officers watched but did not intervene in 2007 as Ms. Smith died after tying a ligature around her neck.

Mr. Harper said the proposed legislation would not alter the availability of mental health treatment for people who are found not criminally responsible.

Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said laws already exist to help protect victims from the very small number of people who have been found not criminally responsible for a crime in Canada. And she suggested more resources should be put towards providing mental health care in prisons and psychiatric treatment facilities.

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"It seems difficult to imagine how this will improve matters," she said. "Rather, it looks to be a measure that will keep more people in a punitive environment for longer periods of time."

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