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Allan Dwayne Schoenborn is shown in an undated RCMP handout photo.

The Canadian Press

To say that society on occasion needs to protect itself from people who are severely mentally ill is not to fall back on a stereotype. It is true in the case of Vince Li of Manitoba, a man with schizophrenia who beheaded a seatmate on a bus in 2008; and it is true in the case of Allan Schoenborn, another man with schizophrenia, from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who killed his three children, also in 2008. The mentally ill may harm themselves more than they harm others, they may even be harmed by others more than they do others harm – but when they are truly dangerous, society needs protection.

Right now, the system set up to decide whether it is safe to return Mr. Li and Mr. Schoenborn to the streets after being found "not criminally responsible" by reason of mental disorder is a balancing act – public safety weighed against the individual's need for treatment and rehabilitation. It's disquieting to think of a review board struggling with the appropriate balance in Mr. Li's or Mr. Schoenborn's case. Public safety should come first. And it is sensible that Conservative Justice Minister Robert Nicholson is proposing to change the law to make that point clear, in the case of high-risk individuals.

Catherine Zahn, the chief executive officer of Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said in a June letter to Mr. Nicholson that recividism rates for NCR offenders is extremely low, at 2.5-7.5 per cent. She expressed a concern that confining NCR individuals for longer periods "runs counter to attempts to de-stigmatize mental illness," such as a campaign by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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Stressing public safety is consistent with the battle against stigma. Stigma is made so much worse each time a horrific act, explainable only by mental illness, occurs. And the reality is, as Stephen Hucker, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has said, that "nobody has a perfect instrument to determine whether someone is a future risk."

Mr. Nicholson needs to ensure, however, that any changes he makes are not attempts to punish the ill – who after all were found not criminally responsible for their actions. Protecting against catastrophic risk is the proper job of government.

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