Tag Archives: jail

The Conservatives’ Push to Incarcerate the “Mentally Ill”

Say one thing, do the opposite.  That sums up the Canadian government’s approach to the treatment of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system.

“(I)ndividuals with mental health issues do not belong in prisons but rather in professional health facilities.”  Those were the promising words of the Minister of Public Safety, Vic Toews, in the House of Commons on Thursday, November 8, 2012.  He made this sweeping and dramatic claim in the wake of the release of the Ashley Smith videos, which portrayed her horrendous and inhumane treatment while she was in custody.

Toews’s comments might give an observer hope – hope that soon we will stop putting people with mental health problems in jails.

But in reality, the actions of the federal government lead to a different, bleaker conclusion, because every new criminal law and bill that has been introduced by the current government increases both the number and the length of the stay of mentally ill people in our prisons.

The most recent venture was announced on November 22, 2012.  In the new year, the Conservatives intend to introduce a bill that will ensure that persons who suffered from a major mental disorder at the time of the commission of a crime stay in custody longer.

In our courts, a person who is found to have been suffering from a major mental disorder at the time of the commission of the crime may be declared to be to be “not criminally responsible,” or NCR, by the courts if this person was unable to “appreciate the nature and quality of his actions” at the time of the offence.

People who are found NCR receive an indefinite sentence.  Once a bed in a mental health institution becomes available, then that person is transferred from a jail to that institution to serve their sentence while receiving treatment.  A panel of experts then annually reviews the inmate’s progress to determine if her mental illness is under control, and if it is safe to release her.

The Conservative government proposes to both decrease the frequency of these reviews and to change the standards so that it is harder to release a person, even if they are deemed safe.  As a result, people who have been found NCR but do not pose a threat will spend more time in the already scarce spaces of our mental health institutions.   That will mean more people with mental health illnesses will spend a longer period of time in jails, awaiting access to an overburdened mental health facility.

This proposal is directly aimed at people with mental health problems.  Despite that, it will not be the worst offender for putting the mentally ill in jail.  A string of other laws previously enacted by the current government have already exacerbated the situation.

Take, for example, the supposed “Truth in Sentencing Act” of 2009, which restricted a judge’s ability to give more than 1:1 credit for pre-trial custody when counting how much time a person should spend in jail upon conviction.  Before this legislation, lack of mental health services and unacceptably restrictive conditions in pre-trial detention (such as lengthy solitary confinement, prolonged and ongoing lock-downs, unavailability of doctors, therapists, or medication, and toilets overflowing in overcrowded cells) could be considered by a judge to reduce the amount of time a person ultimately serves in prisons.  The law, however, radically removed this discretion from judges, effectively forcing longer sentences on all people, including the mentally ill who, in the well-informed opinion of the judge, would be better rehabilitated in the community.

Worst yet are the mandatory minimum sentences, which came into force earlier in November of this year.  Mandatory minimums force judges to impose a minimum jail term, even where they might believe that a jail term or a lengthy jail term would be detrimental to a person’s mental health, his rehabilitation or reintegration.

And yet another law, which came into force on November 20, 2012, eliminates conditional sentences (also known as house arrest) for a wide range of offences, including non-violent ones such as theft over $5000.00, motor vehicle theft, and breaking and entering.

Conditional sentences have traditionally been used not only to reduce the high cost of imprisonment, but also as a valuable tool for enabling rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders, and as a means of keeping families whole, ensuring that people can continue their employment and to receive the kind of support that will improve their mental health.  The elimination of conditional sentences means that more people with mental health problems will stay in jail longer.

At anytime, 25-40% of the incarcerated population suffers from a mental disorder.  These health problems cannot and will not be remedied in jail.  On the contrary, the mental health of these people will often be more acute than before they entered state custody.  But our government ignores the victimization of the mentally ill and the cost to society, and persistently makes laws that incarcerate more people with mental health problems for lengthier periods of time.

Ultimately, our government says one thing when the spotlight is on the suffering of people with mental illness, and does quite the opposite when it comes to legislative action.

In other words, people with mental health issues may not belong in jail, but that’s where they’re going.

There is little to no logical connection between the government’s words and their actions.

They do not seem to appreciate the nature and consequences of their actions.

It seems that our legislators could use a good dose of medication and therapy.

But I won’t recommend jail.

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November 30, 2012 · 10:04 pm

Bullying the Bullies: Is Criminal Law the Appropriate Response to Bullies?

It has been just over a week since Amanda Todd’s tragic and heart-breaking suicide, which she committed to end the pain from the endless torment of the bullies in her life.  A week filled with the public’s sadness, questions, and soul-searching.  A week of outcries:  “How did we stand by and let this happen?”  “What can we do to prevent another Amanda Todd tragedy?”  “Bullies should be punished immediately and harshly!”

And at the end of that week, suddenly and predictably, eight girls in London, Ontario, have been arrested for bullying another, and have been charged with criminal harassment. 

We deservedly feel guilt and shame over Amanda’s fate and our inaction as bystanders to other cases of bullying.  But the desire to do something, and perhaps to relieve our sense of guilt, should not lead us to precipitously arrest every bully, without first exploring other avenues for resolving these conflicts.  

Of the many options available to deal with bullying and bullies, the criminal law is the harshest, most punitive response we can use against anyone, particularly young people, who are still developing and often fighting their own emotional battles. 

In our efforts to prevent another Amanda Todd tragedy, we must take care not to be too hasty in the use of our bluntest and most retaliatory weapon, the criminal law.  

Our zeal must not render us bullies, as well.

Currently, we know very little about the London events that have led to the charges against the young women, or the emotional torment of their victim.  Reports indicate that a female student was the victim of emotional, physical, and cyber-bullying—all pointing toward another possibly tormented young life. 

It may well be that the arrest and criminal charges against those eight girls in London is justified. 

It may well be that all other options for dealing with this problem had been explored and tried, to no avail. 

But it is equally likely that under pressure to respond forcefully to bullying, the police cast the net too wide and arrested too many people. 

Did educators and parents try other, more effective, more empowering means of resolving the problem?

In general, the heavy hand of criminal law is a poor deterrent to most crimes.  Its impact can be devastating to the accused and unhelpful to the victim.  Worse still, criminally charging the perpetrators may end neither the bullying nor the suffering of the victim.  Indeed, the teasing, the emotional harm, the disenfranchisement and the dislike of the victim may increase, especially if the kids arrested are popular, or if their friends and other community members believe that the accusations or arrests were unjustified or a disproportionate response. 

There are alternative, more effective means of preventing and dealing with bullying.  These means require the collaboration and involvement of parents, teachers, counselors and community members.  They require changes in our habits and an examination of how we, as adults, speak about colleagues and peers.  They require changes in our parenting styles:  What shows we permit our children to watch; whether we talk to them about integrity and courage; whether we emphasize “coolness” over kindness. 

Do we, as a community, use supportive processes that encourage accountability by those who have inflicted the hurt?  Do we implement and use processes that facilitate communication by the victim, who may feel empowered by the chance to confront her tormentors?  Do we search for the possible, underlying problems in the life of the bully that have led him or her to act meanly? Do we look for solutions that can help both the victims and the bullies and will be transformative for everyone?

These measures may appear more time-consuming, but in the end, they are likely to be far more effective than the threat and the risks of criminal charges.

Skip these efforts and immediately charge, criminalize and potentially imprison kids who have engaged in bullying, and we send our children the wrong message:  “Your harsh and unforgiving behaviour will be met with even harsher and sometimes more draconian consequences.” 

It’s like reacting to a 4-year-old’s hitting of a friend by spanking the 4-year-old.   “You are going to hurt someone else?  Well, we are going to hurt you even more,” we threaten.

Skip the other efforts and we are abdicating our responsibility as parents and as a community, and leaving everything to the heavy hand of the criminal law, which should only and always be used as a last resort.

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Justice for Victims: Less Jail Time, More Face Time

While the Federal Conservative government is spending billions of dollars to build more prisons, to jail more people, and to punish with greater vengeance, all in the name of tackling crime and of justice for victims, the province of Alberta apparently cannot come up with a measly $351,000 for the one measure that is proven to actually help victims and possibly to reduce crime: victim-offender reconciliation.

Alberta’s Public Security Department announced on Monday that it is ending the annual $351,000 grant for restorative justice programs, allegedly because economic times are tough.

Victim-offender reconciliation (V.O.R.), a form of restorative justice, is one of the most effective and humane means of dealing with crime. It involves mediated or facilitated meetings between offenders and victims. The aim of V.O.R. is, on the one hand, to ensure that offenders comprehend the full human impact of their actions, and that they voluntarily –and genuinely–take some responsibility for those actions. Equally significant, reconciliations help victims cope with their trauma and reduce their fears by humanizing the offender. They help victims move on with their lives. When done right, victim-offender reconciliations may even lead to the wondrous result of the victims helping the offenders overcome those life obstacles that lead them to commit the crimes.

If politicians truly care about victims and want justice for victims, they must look beyond the impulsive urge for punishment for the sake of punishment. They must look at processes that in fact make victims feel whole and restored. Harsh imprisonment may satisfy a desire for “justice” as revenge, but it does not bring about true justice. It never helps victims actually cope with their trauma. Yet incarceration and punishment continue to be the reckless and irrational mission of law-and-order governments.

Furthermore, as a society, we continue to use avoidance and punishment to deal with problems and conflicts that, in fact, require conversation, reflection, commitment, responsibility and empathy.

In its essence, crime is the infliction of pain (sometimes horrible and tragic) by one person on another. Friends sometimes do this to each other, though on a different scale. It is true that when wronged by a friend, some people choose avoidance and simply cut off a relationship. But we know that the better and more effective way of dealing with that pain is to confront the friend and to communicate with them. Why would it be any different if some other human being causes us pain? Why would we choose avoidance and punishment, rather than communication and resolution? Why would we not seek to open the doors to victim-offender reconciliation?

The path of victim-offender reconciliation is not easy- least of all for the offender. It is demanding. It can be emotionally draining and gruelling. It compels the offender to deal with his actions and their consequences, rather than bury the memories, ignore responsibility, or rationalize his behaviour. It impels the offender to make amends, thereby helping the victim and improving his own life. And because V.O.R. forces the offender to confront the victim, and mobilizes everyone to deal with the underlying issues that lead to the criminal behaviour, it is effective.

After all, what is more likely to reduce recidivism: an authentic, deep and personal examination of one’s actions, their consequences, and the acceptance of responsibility, or a jail cell where an offender is taught little conflict management or other skills? What is more likely to empower victims and to help offenders change direction: a process that encourages everyone to tackle the underlying factors that lead to the crime, or a prison sentence where the offender develops bonds with others who are also leading a life of crime? The benefits of restorative justice to the victim who heals emotionally and to the offender who humanizes his victim are simply greater than any money-saving measure.

And while it is difficult to measure what the cost savings are, surely reconciliation is more cost-effective than imprisonment. The cost of incarceration is extremely high, ranging from $89,000 to $250,000 per year. This cost does not include the eventual costs to society of unemployable, beaten or unstable individuals, once they are released from jail.

But “law-and-order” politicians and our current Conservative government continue to charge anyone who opposes the backward and Draconian push for more jails and longer sentences as being “soft on crime.” They regularly accuse detractors of not caring about victims.

If we truly care about victims, however, we must help them cope and heal. Victim-offender reconciliation programs across North America have proven that the process of restorative justice can do just that, in a way that no tough sentence alone can ever do.

According to the CBC and the Edmonton Journal, the $351,000 per year grant (the equivalent of incarcerating two inmates for one year) helped victims and offenders in 218 criminal cases in one single year (2009). With each case bringing together at least one offender and often more than one victim as well as mediators, the $351,000 helped over 436 victims and offenders, and brought together 1000 or more people. Try stuffing that in a jail cell.

(To read the reflections of an ex-offender on restorative justice and the London riots, see this article: Restorative Justice After the Riots?)

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