Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper targets mentally ill offenders

New high-risk category seeks to protect public and victims

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OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled a new law Friday to make it easier to keep in custody people found not criminally responsible for their actions.

The Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act will create a new designation of high-risk offender for those found not criminally responsible of a serious personal-injury offence or cases in which the acts were of a brutal nature that gives rise to a serious threat to the public. This designation would mean an offender would not be allowed unescorted passes from a secure facility and would only have their situation looked at by a provincial review board once every three years instead of once every year.

Only a judge could decide to lift the high-risk designation.

"We can create a system that is reasonable," Harper said. "We believe profoundly that in the past several decades, the criminal justice system became unbalanced in a way that was really inexcusable."

He said the rights of offenders shouldn't be the only concern, and particularly once someone is found guilty, "the system should not be focused on their and only their needs."

Other aspects of the act make public safety the main consideration provincial review boards use when considering what to do with offenders deemed not criminally responsible, and ensure victims will be notified when the offender is released. Review boards can order an offender to have no contact with victims, and victims can even ask to ensure the offender stays away from designated places.

Harper said the new law will ensure victims get more rights and Canadians are safer.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has been promising the legislation for months but had never revealed details.

The issue of how those found not criminally responsible are handled has been prominent in recent years after several high-profile and particularly gruesome cases, including the murder of Tim McLean in Manitoba. McLean was 22 years old when Vince Li killed him on a Greyhound bus travelling between Edmonton and Winnipeg on July 30, 2008.

Li was found not criminally responsible and has been in custody at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre where he is being treated for schizophrenia. He has been allowed out on escorted walks on the hospital grounds for 60 to 90 minutes at a time, and for 30-minute trips into Selkirk, also escorted by a peace officer and a nurse.

McLean's mother, Carol De Delley, has campaigned for reforms to laws that would keep offenders such as Li behind bars indefinitely. She said Friday she feels the government has listened to her.

"I think it's a positive step forward," she said. "It's going to improve victims' rights because there are so few."

The provisions in the bill can also be retroactive, which means Li could be subject to them. De Delley said for that reason, she hopes the opposition supports quick passage of the bill because Li is coming up for his fifth annual review in May.

However, mental-health advocates are not pleased with the legislation. Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, said the government is taking its tough-on-crime agenda to now become tough on the mentally ill.

"We don't want high-risk offenders released, nobody does," said Summerville. "But high risk has to do with how a person has responded to treatment, not to what he did."

Summerville said the government is playing to public fear and stereotypes of the mentally ill.

He said research from McGill University concluded when someone found not criminally responsible is released, at least 93 per cent of them will never reoffend. He said the law does allow for orders that they take their medications and see their doctor or they will be returned to custody.

"But the public didn't hear about that from the prime minister today," he said. "All this does is promise stigma and (to reinforce) social prejudice that these wackos are walking time bombs. Most people respond to treatment. If they don't, that's what the review boards are for so they are not let out."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 A4

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