Court decision underscores need for more treatment beds in Vernon - InfoNews

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Court decision underscores need for more treatment beds in Vernon

Vernon Courthouse
March 23, 2017 - 4:30 PM

VERNON - With addiction at the root of so many crimes, it’s no surprise the courts — and offenders themselves — often turn to treatment as the logical next step to rehabilitation. But what happens when the treatment centres are all full?

A recent court decision out of Vernon shows the struggle lawyers, judges and social agencies face when attempting to get an offender into treatment. Adolph Hemmerling, who pleaded guilty to setting a house on fire in the Shuswap in an alcohol fuelled rage, expressed a desire to attend the John Howard Society Creekside Addictions Recovery Program at Howard House in Vernon after getting out of jail. He suffers from substance abuse and mental health issues.

“The program coordinator for the Creekside Addictions Recovery Program states that if there is a room available upon his release he will be able to move in that day,” the judge said in his written judgement. “However, information was also provided indicating there is a heavy demand during the winter months for access to the program and that there was a concern as to where Mr. Hemmerling would find accommodation in the interim.”

According to Barb Levesque, the executive director for the John Howard Society of the North Okanagan, the situation is an example of a larger problem.

“It’s difficult to guarantee a bed because there is such a high demand for it,” she says.

While the society works closely with Crown counsel and probation to ensure offenders are connected with the services they need, there have been occasions in the past where there just aren’t enough beds available, and individuals are forced to wait.

“Sometimes, the interim support they can cobble together is enough to keep them stable until we have a bed, or can refer them to another centre in the province,” Levesque says, noting people are sometimes shuffled to treatment programs in Kelowna, Kamloops, the Lower Mainland or Prince George. “Interim stabilization is possible, but more often than not what we see is them slipping right back into going to the same houses they used to visit, hanging out with the same friends. It becomes a revolving door.”

In another recent case, a 25-year-old offender appearing in Vernon provincial court on property-related crimes had his case put over due to a two-to-six week wait for a bed at a rehab clinic in Kelowna. Lawyers decided to put his intended guilty plea and sentence hearing over on a week-by-week basis until a bed came up.

“In my experience, judges and the Crown are very open to agreeing to not place someone in jail, and instead place them in a treatment centre,” Levesque says. “But when the courts are faced with this situation where it’s reported to them that ‘John Smith has communicated with the treatment centre and unfortunately for John Smith, your honour, there are no beds’ then the judge may have to make a different decision in that moment.”

The John Howard Society has about 30 treatment beds, and those are for the entire North Okanagan region, not just Vernon. More beds and treatment programs are offered at the Round Lake Treatment Centre and through the Interior Health Authority.

Levesque says the justice system is turning more and more to rehabilitative sentences that involve treatment, which is encouraging, but resources are needed on the other side to meet the demand.

“We, as a society, need to focus on providing more treatment options so we can reduce court and policing costs, and reduce the carnage addiction brings to our communities,” Levesque says.

She says treatment is a far less expensive alternative to throwing people in jail, and is more successful in the long run — something an American movement focussed on the use of ‘drug courts’ has learned.

Addiction is frequently cited as a factor in Vernon court cases, and around the Okanagan in general.

“The term ‘career criminal’, you may as well just substitute ‘addict,’” Levesque says.

Last year, Interior Health announced a plan to open 73 new substance use treatment beds, including 57 support recovery beds and 16 withdrawal management beds. So far, four beds have been added in Vernon. They are operated by the John Howard Society, and Levesque says they could easily use 20 more.

“Interior Health and other health authorities are trying to allocate more resources to mental health and addictions, and that’s very positive,” Levesque says.

But, the need is still outpacing the capacity, and that’s leaving non-profits filling the void. For example, the John Howard Society opened Bill’s Place, a men’s recovery program, in 2013 with no government funding. They are able to run it thanks to donations from the public, and by reallocating funds from other programs.

“That’s a pretty sad state of affairs when we’re at the point where non-profits have to fundraise and use dollars from other programs to fund what is really a medical treatment program,” Levesque says.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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