People suffering from mental illness and neurological issues accused of crimes may be appearing before a specialized court in Edmonton by this fall, provincial court officials told the Edmonton Police Commission on Thursday.
Assistant Chief Judge Larry Anderson said the provincial court has been working for about a year to establish a mental health court that will better consider the needs of the mentally ill and conditions such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
“Over time, a large number of individuals with mental health needs have gravitated from the health system into the justice system, and the court needs to be able to better respond,” he said.
The court, which would have specially trained prosecutors, duty counsel, judges and mental health professionals, could be running as a pilot project by the fall.
The justice system has grappled with the issue since the move to “deinstitutionalize” people with mental health issues and treat them in the community, he said.
Renée Cochard, a recently appointed judge, told the commission she was struck by the large volume of people with mental health issues before her court.
“What I have noticed … is how many people in front of me suffer from mental health problems, and it’s very visible,” she said.
Anderson said the court system’s “adversarial” nature works well for criminal trials, but fails to take into account the mental health of the accused.
That’s partly because police, the Crown and the medical and housing systems operate in “silos,” he said, and rarely work together to support people with mental health issues and keep them from running afoul of the justice system.
Mental health courts exist in other parts of North America and tend to consider that as a part of sentencing, he said.
The mental health court would also focus on the bail process, because many mentally ill people fail to comply with the conditions of their release and wind up before the courts again. It would also include a stream for people with neurological issues such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht said that 25 to 30 per cent of calls to his force have some sort of mental health component.
“I think this is a great approach,” said Knecht. “I think a lot of these people are falling thorough the cracks, or are just being moved along in the system or being released or going to jail.”
The program will be paid for out of existing budgets, Anderson said, but hiring dedicated prosecutors would require additional funding.
Knecht said the system might actually save money.
“I know there was some conversation about the costs of this, but I really do see there being cost savings that can be reinvested,” said the chief. “If we do a better job of keeping from cycling these people through the system continuously, which is what we historically have been doing, you’re going to save money.”
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