For people dealing with everything from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), Regina’s Mental Health Disposition Court (MHDC) is aimed at keeping them out of jail and getting them help.
A report on the first two years of the Mental Health Court in Regina was released on Thursday outlining the early success of the program and making recommendations to improve it.
Since it started in November 2013, 79 people facing jail sentences have voluntarily opted to go through the specialized court. Thirty-six of those cases have been resolved with only five people going to jail.
Judge Clifford Toth said this court offers the option of working with community agencies to come up with a case plan that allows people to stay safely in the community instead of going to jail, which can often make the issue worse.
He said jails are not designed as mental health clinics or to handle people with intellectual disabilities. Too often jails are expected to warehouse those people, only to see them return when they get in trouble with the law again.
“There are much better services available for these individuals in the community and they lose access to those services,” Toth explained. “And when they’re released, they’re on their own suddenly without necessarily housing or on someone’s caseload or on medications, and they don’t fare very well. This could mean that a short jail sentence could lead to another one and another one.”
In fact, the most frequent charges handled by the MHDC were for system-generated offences like breach of probation and failure to appear in court.
Toth noted that when people are cognitively disabled or suffering from mental health issues, they easily forget to come to court or visit their probation officer. Then those individuals wind up in custody, are seen as uncooperative by the judge and land back in jail.
He recalled how easy it was to miss those cases or misunderstand them when he didn’t have the information in his position as a regular provincial court judge.
“If I don’t know, then you may get more than you should get, and you may get the wrong sentence,” he explained.
That is why MHDC works slowly to explain everything properly and come up with a solution.
“It’s very satisfying, it’s something that you wish it would be that way all the time,” Toth commented. “You go to court every day trying to do the right thing, and sometimes it’s pretty hard. Judges don’t have all the answers.”
Toth gives major credit to the work of the community support agencies who work with the court to provide a different solution. Sometimes he said those agencies write letters offering to watch their clients 24/7 to make sure they’re stable, rather than seeing them land in jail.
Dr. Michelle Stewart is an associate professor of justice studies at the University of Regina and has been studying the effectiveness of the mental health court for its first two years in operation.
She said this court truly recognizes that people who are dealing with mental illness or cognitive disabilities deserve a different kind of system.
She calls the report a formative investigation, noting that it would take more time to truly understand the long-term benefits or determine specific results.
For her part, Stewart believes it is better to put public money towards supporting people in the community rather than putting them in jail where their needs are rarely met.
In many high-profile cases, she said people wind up in crisis while dealing with the justice system.
“We see people cycle and spiral through the justice system, when actually we need to slow the justice system down and figure out who needs support in the community and see if we can get them better stabilized in the community and get them out of the justice system,” Stewart said.
Her report also outlined several recommendations to improve the success of the MHDC.
“What we need in this court is dedicated resources which is a coordinator, a dedicated clinical capacity for diagnosis, and dedicated legal aid,” Stewart said. “That would help this court dramatically because it is very successful, but it’s operating with limited resources.”
Stewart also highlighted the desperate need for affordable and supportive housing to help clients find stability in order to access the services they need, stay out of the legal system and get back on the right track.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Edmonton and Area Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Network.