At least two Brandon court judges have lamented the fact that Brandon does not have its own Mental Health Court program such as the one recently started up in Winnipeg.
Brandon Judge Shauna Hewitt-Michta said that a case in which a service station clerk was threatened with a knife by man with mental health issues would have benefited from such a court.
"It’s unfortunate that we don’t yet have that process in Brandon and I hope that we will at some point," Hewitt-Michta said in court on Monday.
The court heard that the man in question has a lengthy record that includes previous violent offences, but also that he has a disorder that affects his judgment and can be aggravated by built-up stress. He was handed a two-year suspended sentence with conditions that include counselling and an order to meet with a mental health worker as directed. He will also have to do 75 hours of community service work.
In April, nearly a month before the Winnipeg Mental Health Court began sitting, Judge John Combs suggested that such a court would be useful in this city as he sentenced a woman who had assaulted a corrections officer at the Brandon jail.
In that case, the intoxicated woman had been take to the jail for breach of peace. She had threatened to commit suicide and repeatedly banged her head against the concrete cell floor. Jail staff were about to restrain her when she punched an officer in the face a few times.
She apologized for her behaviour in court, even as Combs sentenced her to 18 months probation for assault of a peace officer.
While we believe the judges acted in the best interests of the accused in both of these cases, given the limitations of a criminal court, both of these people could have been better served by a mental health court that is designed to address their mental health issues, and prevent further run-ins with the law.
And there is ample evidence to prove that these kinds of courts make a difference — not only for the accused, but also for our criminal courts. Such courts have existed in the United States for more than a decade, and more of them are popping up in cities across Canada as well.
In 2007, the American Journal of Psychiatry published a report that showed that mental health courts were effective in reducing the involvement of persons with mental disorders in the criminal justice system.
"Based on an intent-to-treat sample (i.e., all of those who enrolled in mental health court, regardless of whether they successfully completed the program), mental health court participants showed a longer time without any new charges or new charges for violent crimes compared with similar individuals who did not participate in the program," the journal stated.
"Survival analysis showed that the reductions in the likelihood of new charges were more substantial with followup of more than one year after enrolment in mental health court; for example, at 18 months, the likelihood of mental health court participants being charged with any new crimes was about 26 per cent lower than that of comparable individuals who received treatment as usual, and the likelihood of mental health court participants being charged with new violent crimes was 55 per cent lower than that of individuals who received treatment as usual."
As it currently stands, the province’s Mental Health Court program in Winnipeg isn’t available to people charged with serious or violent offences, but those charged with relatively minor ones such as mischief, assault, theft or uttering threats.
Once accepted into the program, an accused enters a guilty plea to their charges on their first court appearance. They’re then placed on bail and their case is remanded week to week as they follow treatment. If the accused makes progress, he or she may be allowed to appear in court less often.
But as we report in the Sun today, the province still has no plans in place to expand the program beyond Winnipeg. Although Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan has previously suggested a Westman accused could be referred to the Mental Health Court in Winnipeg, that suggestion is untenable, as frequent court appearances are required over a period of 18 to 24 months. An accused would have to travel between Westman and Winnipeg or make arrangements to live their at their own expense.
We applaud the province for attempting to improve the lives of those with mental health issues and keep them out of Manitoba criminal courts.
But clearly it’s time the NDP consider expanding the program to Brandon. Mental health challenges exist outside the Perimeter Highway, too.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 12, 2012