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This article was published 4/2/2016 (1617 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
He greets everyone on a first-name basis, offering up a warm smile as they settle into the prisoner’s box before him. Some appear legitimately excited to be here. Others can’t even make eye contact, staring directly at the floor.
It’s Thursday afternoon. Mental Health Court is in session. And Associate Chief provincial court Judge John Guy is presiding over a packed gallery with a cool, calm demeanour that combines elements of a proud parent, savvy sports coach, concerned medical doctor and wise guidance counsellor.
It is unlike anything else going on in the downtown Winnipeg Law Courts — a weekly gathering of those living on the fringe of society who are clearly struggling to find their way. It’s meant to address what many see as an epidemic of mental health related-issues which are clogging the justice system.
"Hello Bill," he says to the heavy-set middle aged man who shuffles forward and takes a seat. Bill’s sweat pants are partially pulled up, exposing bare feet in his untied snow boots.
"I see you have a doctor’s appointment next week," Guy says as he glosses over a stack of papers in his hands. It's the latest in a long line of weekly progress reports from a community-based supervisor.
"I’m concerned about your health. I think some activity would be helpful. I think you should find ways to get motivated to get out and do some things," Guy tells him.
Bill slowly nods his head in agreement, then mentions he’s been retaining water and it’s leading to pain and swelling in his legs. Guy tells him to get that looked at right away.
There is nary a mention of the real reason Bill is here — several criminal charges including uttering threats and failing to attend court. Those offences are essentially on hold while this unique process plays out.
Like the approximately 30 people who will appear on this docket, Bill has been diverted and accepted into mental health court for what could be described as some of the less serious Criminal Code offences.
The court debuted in 2012 and was dubbed an innovative justice measure aimed at diverting people with mental illnesses who clash with the law away from the standard court process and into a tailored treatment regime.
Schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder are the most common ailments. None are serious enough to require full-time hospitalization or the making of applications such as not criminally responsible. Keeping people on a strict medication regime while in the community on release appears to be the biggest challenge.
"I see you met with Dr. Vattheuer and made some changes. Hopefully that will be good from your point of view," Guy tells a young woman named Dezeraja who is here on theft and other property-related offences.
William is called up a few minutes later. Guy mentions how the man has been struggling with his alcohol addictions and is set to begin one-on-one counselling through the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba.
"I think that’s great. I want to make sure you attend these appointments. It’s really important you stay clean. We gotta see if we can deal with these addictions," Guy says to the man who is facing a string of assault and breach charges.
Language is important. The fact Guy uses terms such as "we" is no accident. There is a sense of togetherness in this courtroom that you don’t see elsewhere. Gone is the stoic, sanitized version, replaced with a much more down-to-earth vibe.
"Guess what? I’m going back to work part-time!" a very excited middle-aged woman named Bonnie tells the judge within seconds of having her name called.
"That’s wonderful. I’m very pleased to hear that," Guy responds. He tells Bonnie to keep working hard as her multiple charges of identity fraud and theft remain in a holding pattern.
"Thanks Mary!" Bonnie turns to the prosecutor and says before returning to her seat.
Mary is Mary Goska, the experienced Crown attorney who oversees these files. Once again, the typical adversarial process usually seen in courtroom settings is gone. Goska takes great pains to praise those offenders who have shown progress. Rewards are often dished out in the form of more relaxed bail conditions.
The ultimate reward, for those who ultimately "graduate" from the court following months of monitoring and treatment, is a likely stay of proceedings and second chance at a fresh start.
Goska, and her colleagues in the Crown’s office, ultimately decide which cases to accept in this court. People charged with serious violent attacks, gang crimes or sex-related offences are not allowed. Assessments are done by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority through their Forensic Assertive Community Treatment (FACT) team comprised of mental-health and social-work professionals.
Once allowed in, an accused agrees in writing to follow a detailed plan that is drawn up looking at their specific needs such as addictions, housing and employment.
"She continues to do amazingly well," Goska tells court on Thursday of a young woman named Ashley, who is also appearing on property-crime offences. Goska recommends that her weekly court appearances now be switched to bi-weekly.
"How’s the new apartment?" Guy asks the woman.
"It’s awesome," Ashley replies.
A similar move to bi-weekly appearances is given to Elvis, who is pending on assault and uttering threat charges.
"It’s a step in the right direction," Guy tells him. He then urges him to stay motivated and trying to do some volunteer work in the community.
"Can you do that for me?" Guy asks.
"Yes," Elvis responds immediately.
Not everyone is getting a pat on the back. Some are getting a bit of a kick to the backside, with the possibility of more stringent release conditions or even re-arrest facing them if they don’t get it together.
"I’d like you to be giving a little bit more effort on things," Guy sternly tells Mark, who apparently hasn’t been given a glowing report this week. Mark clearly has some difficulty following court orders, given the number of breaches he is facing in addition to uttering threats.
Another young man named Ryan learns Thursday that his bail conditions are being relaxed because of his progress.
"This is going to loosen things up for you a little bit so it will be a real good opportunity to prove yourself," Guy tells Ryan, who is here on nearly a dozen breach charges. "Hopefully you can make use of this, Ryan."
The final accused of the day is Thomas, who is charged with doing a break-and-enter. He has also been battling a string of addiction issues, along with his mental illness. But Guy seems encouraged by his first few months in mental health court.
"Keep focusing on your recovery," the judge tells him. "One day at a time."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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