Most Manitobans support expanding programs that treat young criminals suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder instead of locking them up.
In a Probe Research poll conducted exclusively for the Winnipeg Free Press, 78 per cent of Manitobans surveyed thought a small court program for young offenders with FASD ought to get a funding boost.
"There's a sense among the public that perhaps this is a better way to deal with people with FASD, better or more effective than simply sentencing them," said Curtis Brown, Probe's research associate.
The Youth Justice Program is a little-known project that gives chronic offenders the chance to get an official medical diagnosis of FASD.
Then staff set up an intensive monitoring and social services plan for judges to mandate instead of ordering long probations or jail sentences offenders may not have the cognitive capacity to follow or learn from.
Offenders are given help with addictions, housing, school, counselling, and they get a little latitude for minor breaches of their release conditions, such as curfew times.
Last April, the province came under fire for failing to crack down on high-risk young offenders who breached their conditions.
Until now, the Youth Justice Program has flown largely under the radar, largely because it runs counter to the recent wave of tough-on-crime rhetoric.
Already, 87 young offenders have gone through the program. Another 300 or so are on the referral list. Judges, lawyers and FASD experts say the program is helping a fraction of the kids it could.
Only two offenders a month can get an FASD diagnosis that then makes them eligible for intensive monitoring and treatment, and a sentence that reflects their disability.
And the program is still confined mostly to Winnipeg, in part because social services for people with FASD are scarce outside the Perimeter.
The province says it expanded funding for the program in 2008 to include The Pas, and is in talks with the federal government to broaden the program even more.
"We're willing to work in real time on this issue," said Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau.
One in 100 people have some form of brain damage caused by mothers who drink while pregnant, and that's likely a too-conservative estimate. FASD is virtually invisible and mired in stigma. The job world, schools and the criminal justice system are almost perfectly designed for people with FASD to fail. The birth defect costs Canadians at least $5.3 billion a year.
The Free Press/Probe Research poll also found Manitobans are divided on whether solving the FASD epidemic would lead to a drop in crime. Only about a third of Manitobans believe people with FASD are more likely to commit crimes or that curbing FASD would directly reduce the province's high crime rate.
That's despite research that suggests as many as 60 per cent of FASD-sufferers get into trouble with the law. One study at Manitoba's Stony Mountain Institution suggested more than a quarter of all inmates had or likely had FASD.