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Opinion Why keeping Matthew de Grood out of prison is good for public safety

Peter McKnight is an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.

Matthew de Grood will not be going to prison. And that's not only good for him; it's good for public safety.

Last month, Mr. de Grood, who stabbed five young adults to death at a Calgary party in 2014, was found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder. He has therefore been remanded to the custody of a psychiatric hospital instead of a prison, a move which has outraged people in Alberta and across the country.

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The outrage is understandable, and greets courts virtually every time they find an accused not criminally responsible for a serious, violent offence. To many people, a finding of NCR amounts to getting away with murder, a get out of jail free card that renders the accused free to do it all over again.

But Matthew de Grood is not free, and may never be free. Even if he is one day released, the NCR finding ensures that he will receive intensive psychiatric treatment in a mental-health setting, something afforded to very few mentally disordered offenders.

While Mr. de Grood will not be going to jail, he happens to be the exception. With the closing of psychiatric hospitals, prisons have reluctantly become mental-health institutions of last resort: According to a recent report prepared for Correctional Service Canada, more than 70 per cent of male offenders who entered federal prison between 2012 and 2014 suffered from some form of mental illness.

Even if we leave aside the most commonly diagnosed conditions – substance-abuse disorders and antisocial personality disorder – fully 40 per cent of incoming male inmates met the criteria for at least one mental illness, including schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder.

Prisons are, of course, ill equipped to handle this population, which means many mentally ill inmates spend much of their time in segregation and without proper treatment. The result is predictable: Some 70 per cent of mentally disordered offenders reoffend within three years of release.

Given this abject failure of prisons to do something for which they were not designed, we really ought to welcome measures that ensure seriously mentally ill offenders receive adequate treatment. And according to research published last year in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, NCR is one such measure.

The National Trajectory Project analyzed 1,800 cases of people found NCR between May, 2000, and April, 2005, in the three most populous provinces and those with the most NCR findings: Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

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Threats and assaults accounted for more than half of all NCR cases, while only 9 per cent of cases involved a serious, violent offence (murder and manslaughter, attempted murder and sex offences). That ought to put to rest the popular notion that NCR is used mainly to get away with murder.

Three years after an NCR verdict, 9.3 per cent of NCR-accused in Ontario and 9.5 per cent in B.C. had committed a further offence. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Quebec's recidivism rate was much higher, at 21.5 per cent. But even including Quebec, this gives a national rate of 16.7 per cent, which is less than half the 34 per cent of former prison inmates who commit a further offence within three years of release, and less than a quarter of the 70 per cent of mentally ill ex-cons who reoffend.

Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, people found NCR for serious, violent offences were the least likely to reoffend, with only six per cent committing a further offence. And only 0.6 per cent of reoffences among the NCR population involved a serious, violent crime.

Accused found NCR therefore present a lesser threat to the public than offenders convicted and sentenced to jail, whether or not those offenders are mentally ill.

There's no way of knowing if Mr. de Grood will follow a similar course and steer clear of trouble if he's released, but one thing is clear: Matthew de Grood is where he needs to be, for his welfare and for ours.

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