Canadian prime minister and conservative party leader Stephen Harper is getting tough on crime: by going after the mentally ill. He’s introduced the “Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act,” a step backwards in crime reform, to the days when the mentally ill had no protection or access to services whatsoever, and were treated as deviants, criminals, or the dregs of society.
Today, when you can still most frequently find the mentally ill (often undiagnosed and certainly untreated) living on the streets in any North American city, Harper’s move still stands to make things worse. He wants to go after a system that is designed to treat the ill instead of letting them be victims of a more dangerous type of criminal.
The gist of the current system is to divert those who are possibly not criminally responsible for an action by reason of a mental disorder, to a tribunal including both mental health and legal professionals, where a decision is made on the mental health status of the individual.
Depending on a number of factors, “the need to protect the public from dangerous persons, the mental condition of accused, the reintegration of the accused into society and other needs of the accused,” this person might be placed in a mental care facility for a set period of time, or indefinitely. Their status is reviewed on a yearly basis, and since public safety is first on the list, a person found not criminally responsible might, regardless, be “put away” for much longer than an individual who goes through an ordinary criminal trial.
Harper is spewing a lot of rhetoric about this, framing it as an issue of “victims’ rights.” He makes it sound like this act will only affect rampaging psychotics who have murdered 11 people and keep being re-released because they’re “not criminally responsible.” Harper thinks he’s living in Gotham City, where the Joker keeps breaking out of Arkham Asylum every month and attacking stadiums of people with nerve gas.
It also appears the incumbent PM has created a new federal position (in 2007, in fact, though I hadn’t heard of it before today): an Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, which, at least in this case, is parroting Harper’s Reform Act propaganda.
But leaving aside revenge, and yes, I realize that’s a huge thing to leave aside, especially since it can be so easily used by politicos like Harper to stir up his electorate, what are the rights of victims? I think the biggest right is one shared by all citizens, those who have been touched by a serious crime and those who haven’t (at least not yet): the knowledge that the justice system will do everything it can to to minimize the risk of it happening again. From that perspective, Harper is not standing up for victims’ rights.
The Numbers Back Up Treatment Over Jail Time
I’ll draw on the numbers Peter McKnight provides in his excellent analysis at the Vancouver Sun: recidivism rates for mentally ill persons sent to jail (where they’re taken advantage of by professional criminals and receive little to no mental health treatment) are over 50 percent; redicivism for those found not criminally responsible and sent to proper treatment facilities is, astonishingly, less than ten percent, with some studies suggesting the number could be as low as three percent.
That’s an astoundingly successful program. That’s a rare glimmer of hope in an overtaxed, ill-equipped justice system that is largely dealing with symptoms of a societal sickness they are unable to tackle directly. True, restorative justice lacks that little boost to our reptilian hind brain that comes from vengeance achieved, but with our prisons overloaded already, satisfying the darkest desires of our personalities has become a luxury we cannot afford.
Harper’s proposed reforms will discourage accused mentally ill people from seeking such an outcome. By switching annual reviews (the equivalent of a parole hearing) to a once-in-three-years event, Harper hopes to increase the length of time a rehabilitated patient will languish, making this option less attractive, and sending more of them to prison for shorter fixed sentences. More of our mentally ill will thus be undiagnosed, untreated, unmedicated and recruited into the ranks of violent gangs and criminals.
This will only lead to a bad end for those unfortunate individuals, and, something Harper disingenuously claims to care about, will lead to more victims as well. The upside? “Victims first” is a nice, simple slogan to mindlessly chant at re-election time.
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