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Criminal Code Review Board: Getting serious

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Maybe it's time to just face the hard fact: Manitoba's Criminal Code Review Board is overtaxed, and citizens most seriously in need of mental-health treatment are falling through the cracks. And it's wrong.

I'd love to be able to point you to a whole range of specific evidence about how I've come to believe this, but really, I have one small recurring issue that points to the larger, more-worrisome picture: If we don't take steps to deal with the workload pressure the CCRB is under, then we're willingly failing the most vulnerable among us. 

Today, I watched as a judge declared a man not criminally responsible for a fire he set at a Shoppers Drug Mart in June using a bottle of rubbing alcohol he purchased at the store moments earlier.

He committed the act — nobody was injured and the fire was quickly extinguished — while suffering under "acute schizophrenic symptoms." He told police he had been planning the crime for some time. "I tried to burn the place down. Is this going to be on the news?," he asked them.

So, he's detained at a jail facility and eventually assessed and found to be not criminally responsible. His fate is now in the hands of the Criminal Code Review Board.

But, as I've often seen in recent months, the CCRB is unable to hold a hearing into his fate within the required 45-day timeline as set out by the Criminal Code.

This sick man instead will wait 90 days before the CCRB will be able to convene a hearing and decide what treatment he needs and where he should be housed.

The Crown cited "staffing issues" at the CCRB as the reason for asking for the extension before the clock had even started ticking on the initial 45-day window.

It was in mid-August I wrote a report for the Free Press on another man who was also found NCR and the result was much the same. Another case of delayed assessment due to pressures on forensic psychological staff, followed by an immediate request upon the NCR finding for an extension for the CCRB hearing. In that case, the judge refused to grant it on the basis of "resource-driven need."

I'm not sure what difference the refusal makes, given officials will just bring the case back before a judge as 45 days comes near and ask for the extension again.

That story came many months after I penned a feature-length piece last winter about how a staffing exodus of psych-services doctors was causing serious delays in the assessments of mentally ill inmates, causing them to languish in jails instead of hospitals where they rightfully belong.

This is not an issue that falls at the feet of criminal justice system players that I can see.

What's been made abundantly clear to me — at least from what I've seen over the years — is when mental-health issues are clearly at play in a criminal case, the court, Crowns and defence lawyers take a very compassionate and co-operative approach to seeking help for the accused person.

It's just that the minute that person leaves the courtroom, what will happen, and more specifically, when anything will happen, becomes anybody's guess.

I don't blame the CCRB. I have no doubt they do the best they can with what they have. After witnessing the board in action this afternoon, they seem carefully invested in the work they do — but are clearly stretched for time. 

But if it's the case that we care less about a person receiving timely and proper mental-health treatment because they're already in custody and don't pose a "public risk" (the out of sight, out of mind principle) then we're just punishing them by virtue of their illnesses.

And I strongly suspect that unless we get this house in order post-haste, we ain't seen nothing in terms of problems yet.

Let's put this in realistic terms. It's the CCRB that handles ultra-serious cases such as Vince Li's, which merit close scrutiny and consideration for his and the public's sake.

Do we really want them under pressure to issue decisions and dispositions post-haste in cases like that because they're rushed for time? I know I don't.

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About James Turner

James Turner rejoined the Free Press as a justice-beat reporter in August 2013 after a number of years away working at other media outlets, including the Winnipeg Sun and CBC Manitoba.

A reporter in Winnipeg since 2005, he got his first taste of the justice beat as a former Free Press intern, then as the newspaper's police reporter from 2008-09.

Among the topics he's eager to cover are youth crime, street gangs, child-welfare and how the mental health and justice systems intersect.

An avid blogger and early adopter of Twitter, James (@heyjturner) loves to write long, much to the frustration of his editors.

He despises animal cruelty. He loves 80s music and his tubby labrador retriever.

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