Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No justice when it comes to addicts

Homeless aboriginal gets jail time; doctor remains free, still practises

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The contrast is stark.

And appalling.

A homeless man breaches his probation by being drunk in a public place.

And is sent back to jail.

A physician pleads guilty to a disturbing list of 14 charges of professional misconduct -- including prescribing inappropriate medication to vulnerable people and billing for patients he didn't treat -- all by way of feeding his drug addiction.

And the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba rules he can continue practising. Perhaps, even probably, if police end up charging him criminally.

Thus is the privilege of a coddled professional, even a drug-addicted one such as Dr. Stephen John Coyle.

And thus is the plight of booze-addicted aboriginal street people, even ones such as Faron Hall, whose river rescue just four years ago had politicians from city hall to the House of Commons celebrating his bravery.

In a statement that unwittingly contrasted the difference between how vulnerable people and the doctor who exploited them are viewed and valued, the college rationalized its decision to allow Coyle to keep his licence with these class-defining words:

"The public good can be served by allowing a trained and educated physician, like Coyle to practise medicine..."

But with what could be viewed as college-ordered probation terms of its own.

Coyle, the former chief medical officer of the Misericordia Health Centre, must adhere "to a carefully designed set of the conditions to protect the public good."

And how, in Hall's case, is the public good protected by imposing an unrealistic probation term such as not being drunk in a public place.

When public places are his home.

When two years after his original jail sentence he's allowed to drink but not get drunk where security officers in the Richardson Building can find him and police can take him back into custody.

As for Coyle, it's not that I object to the college's effort to provide support for his rehabilitation as a person.

To the contrary. But where's the deterrence for other doctors?

And, even more importantly, where's the hand-holding prescribed treatment for jailed addicts such as Hall?

Hall is far from alone in needing the kind of treatment Coyle will have access to.

In a recent survey of prisons in Saskatchewan -- whose population demographics are similar to Manitoba's -- Statistics Canada found the most common need among inmates was addressing substance abuse.

Nine out of 10, or 92 per cent most common.

In other words, our jails and prisons are jammed with people whose fundamental crime is the same as Hall's, and for that matter, Coyle's.

But even if Coyle is charged criminally and convicted, there's little to no chance he would go jail for a first-time offence.

He probably wouldn't get house arrest if he stayed clean and was back to being such a valuable -- and valued -- part of society.

No, for the most part, jail in Manitoba is reserved mostly for addicts, aboriginals such as Hall. Many of whom are non-violent.

It's absurd.

As was the sentence that has started the "homeless hero's" predictable back-and-forth to jail breaches; an "aggressive panhandling" assault. But he kicked a vehicle door, not the woman who was struck by it.

A woman who, curiously, happened to be a physician.

That's an example of why in recent years Manitoba has had the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration among the provinces. A rate more than double the national average.

How would you even sentence someone such as Hall to house arrest?

He doesn't have a home.

So we arrest him and send him back to jail for what all of us are allowed to do in our homes.

Drink too much.

There has to be a better, more rational and humane way.

Perhaps even a less expensive way to treat addicts and so many other of our incarcerated mentally ill than taking them from the curb to the cell.

Over and over and over again.

Prison and jail cells should be reserved for the truly dangerous; not simply those who are most dangerous to themselves.

It's the 21st century, not the 19th century.

Canada needs to check the date.

We as a caring society need to start treating addicts as if they were all doctors.

Instead of criminals.

 

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

How do we create a system where addiction issues are treated fairly? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2013 A5

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