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Bill to keep mentally ill in custody longer blasted

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OTTAWA -- The federal government is trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist with legislation to make it easier to keep mentally ill offenders in custody for longer, an alliance of mental-health experts said Tuesday.

The alliance represents nine national mental-health organizations, none of which was consulted when the government put together Bill C-54, said Dr. Paul Federoff, president of the Canadian Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Bill C-54, the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, was introduced in February by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. It came out of a review Nicholson ordered of current laws just two days after a psychiatrist recommended Vince Li be allowed 30-minute escorted walks away from the Selkirk Mental Health Centre.

Li was found not criminally responsible (NRC) in 2008 for the murder of 22-year-old Tim McLean. The grisly killing on a Greyhound bus bound for Winnipeg made international headlines. Li was suffering from schizophrenia.

The bill would affect someone like Li by giving the court the ability to designate as high risk certain NCR offenders whose crimes were particularly brutal and threaten public safety. It can be applied retroactively to NCR offenders still receiving treatment.

However, Chris Summerville, executive director of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society and CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, said tying punishment or a designation as high risk to the brutality of the crime belies evidence that shows there is no correlation between the seriousness of a crime and the likelihood a NCR offender will reoffend or cannot be treated.

"We understand the need to protect Canadians from individuals that commit violent crimes, however this bill as currently written will not do this," said Summerville. "What this bill has done is tell Canadians they should be afraid of people living with mental illness."

Federoff said this bill will not prevent crime, but may make it more likely mentally ill people avoid treatment or choose to go to jail where the sentence might be shorter than the open-ended incarceration they might get for being designated NCR. He said existing laws for NCR offenders are closer "to the ideal."

Currently, when an offender is given a designation as NCR, they are sent to a mental-health treatment facility. Their care is overseen by a provincial review board that reviews progress and makes periodic rulings to gradually increase privileges with a view to slowly reintegrating offenders into the community.

The review board could ultimately recommend the offender be released under certain conditions, including requiring them to take their medication and continue seeing psychologists and psychiatrists.

Federoff said to restrict the abilities of the review board and give more power to the court is the wrong way to go and sends a message to the public to be afraid.

Various studies suggest mentally ill offenders who receive proper treatment are far less likely to reoffend than those who serve time in prison, said Summerville. One study in Ontario about a decade ago showed the recidivism rate for NCR offenders was 7.5 per cent compared to 45 per cent for offenders who served time in federal prison.

"This tells us the current review-board system works," he said. The group is not against all of the provisions in C-54, saying those that ensure victims are informed if an offender is released, and giving review boards power to order offenders to have no contact with victims, are helpful to victims.

Julie Di Mambro, a spokeswoman for Nicholson, said Tuesday the changes to the law were made at the request of victims' families and provincial governments.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2013 A10

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