Jail isn’t answer for chronic offenders, Delta’s police chief says

DELTA – The justice system is doing nothing to help deal with chronic offenders, says Delta’s police chief, and building more jails isn’t going to improve the situation.


"We don’t think we need more jails," said Chief Jim Cessford, adding he would like to see that money used to restructure the system to better help people with mental health and addiction issues.


About 45 per cent of all calls Delta police officers respond to involve a person with a mental health issue, prompting the department to make some changes to address the growing problem.


In 2008, the department partnered with Delta Mental Health to establish the Community Health Intervention Program, formalizing an already strong working relationship between the two agencies and developing an outreach service that sees a dedicated police officer regularly liaise with a mental health staff member.


Initially the program was expected to deal with 10 to 15 high-risk individuals a year, but in 2008 the officer saw 685 files, a number that grew to more than 800 last year. Cessford said the department just added a second officer to the unit to deal with the increasing workload.


While police deal with many offenders only once, or a handful of times, there are others who come into contact with officers regularly, even hundreds of times, and there is a direct link between chronic offenders and substance abuse or mental health disorders.


"The issue of chronic offenders and the correlation to substance abuse and mental health disorders is complex," Cessford said in a recent report to the Delta police board.


At any give time, Delta police officers are dealing with between 10 and 20 chronic offenders, a situation that puts a strain on police resources.


Many chronic offenders get caught in a


cycle of minor crime – stealing from cars and other property offences – to support their addiction. Once caught by police, most will spend just a few weeks or months in jail – not long enough to get any sort of treatment,


Cessford said – before being released back onto the streets where the cycle begins again.


Cessford said many chronic offenders are simply falling through the cracks of the system, unable to get treatment for their addiction because of their mental health issues and vice versa.


"There’s a real disconnect here," he said. "They don’t need to be in jail."


Cessford said there needs to be a change in how the justice system deals with chronic offenders because as it stands, the current one isn’t working.


"We’ve named the elephant in the room – that elephant is jails don’t work."


The chief points to Texas as an example of how making changes to the system can work. Instead of building more jails, the state put money into probation strategies that focused on evidence-based supervision and treatment, with the aim of reducing recidivism and, ultimately, the number of prisoners in prisons.


Cessford said he would like to see a system where chronic offenders dealing with mental health and/or addiction issues are more often sentenced to treatment or daily counseling than jail time.


While the idea started here in Delta, the chief has plans to see it move forward. His report will first be taken to the B.C. Association of Police Boards and the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police in the hopes it will be passed on to the national associations.

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