Putting order in the court

Offenders with mental health issues don’t always fare well in the justice system.

Victoria Police Const. Laura Fluit and Rick Sanderson

Victoria Police Const. Laura Fluit and Rick Sanderson

The 52-year-old woman had been before the courts continuously for a decade for making bogus 911 calls, setting fires, and threatening people.

The woman, who had mild mental impairment and a major depressive disorder, was under the care of her 75-year-old mother, who could no longer look after her.

Eventually, the frequent offender appeared in a new court in Victoria designed for people with mental health issues. She was directed to a community response team, and under its supervision, went back on her medication and hasn’t been inside a courtroom in two years. She apologized to police for her past behaviours and is once again living peacefully with her mother in the community.

This is just one of the success stories from Victoria’s Integrated Court (VIC), which is lauded provincially as one of the best ways to treat the mentally ill from a legal perspective.

It’s the kind of approach Surrey is hoping to implement here.

In January 2007, Mayor Dianne Watts and a contingent from Surrey city hall travelled to Midtown, New York to examine the community court system there.

Accountability appeared to be key. People convicted of crimes resulting from substance abuse were sent directly to alcohol or drug treatment, usually within hours. Those appearing for spousal abuse were ordered into counselling, thieves had to repay what was stolen, and graffiti artists had to clean up their vandalism.

The approach lessened the burden on other courts, reduced the number of repeat offenders, and made deep cuts in the levels of petty crime.

Last year, Vancouver lawyer Geoffrey Cowper (below) was asked by the B.C. attorney general to review the province’s chronically clogged court system and in eight months came back with recommendations for wholesale changes.

The report, titled A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century, argues a fresh approach to handling people with mental health issues is crucial.

Geoffrey Cowper“Mental illness and addiction in British Columbia’s criminal justice system was identified during consultations as a significant systemic issue,” Cowper wrote in the 288-page report.

While the Cowper report didn’t provide statistics on community courts, the Midtown court, and a similar one in Red Hook, New York,  diverted about 200,000 cases annually from senior courts.

Such diversion rates could work wonders in B.C., where statistics show one in three people in B.C. jails have mental illness – three times the amount found in the general population.

Cowper noted the bulk of their crimes are relatively minor.

“The mentally ill are more likely to be arrested for disturbance, mischief, minor theft and failure to appear in court than non-ill people.”

Because of their conditions, they are more likely to be jailed, he said.

“The misunderstanding and confusion that often surrounds people with mental illness may cause people to fear and view them as dangerous, when they may, in fact, represent no risk to public safety.

“Early resolution for these people frequently involves the offender accessing health or social programs,”

Experts say a community court specializing in mental health would be a welcome change, as jail is one of the worst places for people with mental illness.

“Imagine what it does to a person who needs health service provided to them, but is treated like a criminal,” said psychiatrist Joti Samra. “That is not where people with mental health disorders belong.”

Cowper was in Surrey on March 19 speaking with a business crowd about the judicial system and the need for a community court in the city.

He told the group such a court should be extremely focused, allowing only those who are mentally ill and perhaps domestic violence cases. He said Vancouver’s community court – which has been open since the summer of 2008 – is suffering from trying to be too many things to too many people.

Coun. Barinder Rasode also spoke at the gathering and said a community court is needed, and should be created in collaboration with RCMP, provincial social services, the Fraser Health Authority, and the courts.

“(The mentally ill) would be assessed and immediately, in the same building, taken to a counsellor where they could be given a treatment plan,” Rasode said.

Surrey has been lobbying for six years for community court. The decision remains with the province under the ministry of the attorney general.






Surrey North Delta Leader