Mental Health Courts Guide Offenders to Treatment, Not a Jail Cell


Peering at Ontario Court Justice Leslie Chapin from the prisoner’s box, Christopher Parkinson took less than a minute to escalate from simmering anger to bellicose fury.

“Cut me a little bit of respect and tell me where I’m going to be sleeping tonight,” yelled Mr. Parkinson, one of a stream of petty offenders paraded through
the city’s Mental Health Court one day last week. “You think this is funny?” he asked, before unleashing a stream of obscenities at the judge.

Most judges would have swiftly cited the wiry young man for contempt of court and sent him off to jail. But Judge Chapin turned a kindly eye on Mr. Parkinson, who was charged with two counts of threatening death, and patiently explained the mechanics of obtaining bail.

“We are going to bring you back tomorrow,” she said placidly. “I suggest that you speak to duty counsel.”

In the half-dozen mental-health courts sprinkled across the country, there is nothing unusual about unruly behaviour, tears or incoherent speech. Operating as a legal triage unit composed of experienced judges, prosecutors, psychiatrists and duty counsel, they divert offenders away from jails and into hospitals or community social service agencies.

In the decade since the pioneering Toronto court was set up, mental-health courts have been widely hailed as a sensitive solution to the vexing problem
of mentally ill offenders, who make up as much as 25 to 30 per cent of people who languish, untreated or inadequately treated, behind bars.

All of which raises an obvious question: Why are there so few mental-health courts?

A vocal proponent of mental health courts, Judge Ray Wyant of Manitoba Provincial Court said their slow growth is inexplicable. “We focus these kind of
initiatives in major cities, but there is a host of people who live in other areas of this country and don’t have those resources available to them,” he
said. “There is a lot of need for these across the country.”

Almost a hundred U.S. cities have mental-health courts. In Canada, they are limited to Toronto, Saint John, Halifax and St. John’s.

A few other large cities have taken a partial step by setting up courts dealing with a spectrum of problems that may include mental illness, such as substance abuse. There are also a handful of part-time mental health courts for youthful offenders.

“This is a huge problem and we need to deal with it,” Judge Wyant said. “Jails are not built for people with mental illness. Judges are very limited in
the remedies they can apply for offending behaviour. It is like putting a Band-Aid on a cancer.”

The creation of mental-health courts can usually be traced to the efforts of one or more judges who balked at processing sick individuals as if they were
healthy offenders who chose to break the law.

Judge Wyant, who recently completed a term as chief judge of his court, fought for several years to win approval and funding for a mental-health court that will be set up in Winnipeg in the fall. Like other mental health courts, it will be run by specially trained judges and prosecutors and closely linked
with community services.

Judge Wyant said serious offenders will not qualify to be streamlined through mental-health court, but petty offenders with serious mental illnesses will,
along with those who cause a nuisance in the community.

“The Crown would be the gatekeeper,” Judge Wyant said. “It would be run as a therapeutic court where the aim is to get a stabilization plan in place. We
want to get these people back out into the community, hopefully with a stay of proceedings or some other disposition that does not involve incarceration.”

In the Toronto court, a psychiatrist is on duty to provide immediate assessments of offenders brought in by police. Social workers have offices in an adjoining room, where they can rapidly link offenders with appropriate placements and programs.

Arne Nes, an official with Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, sits in the court on a daily basis, ready to find a hospital bed somewhere in the province whenever a judge determines that an offender need treatments or a more extensive assessment.

Any city would benefit from having a mental-health court, provided it is adequately funded, Mr. Nes said. “It’s important to have the resources to get together with health-care institutions to provide follow-up care,” he said.

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