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HELSTON: When prison cells replace treatment beds, we all lose

Charlotte Helston is the Vernon reporter for InfoNews.
July 22, 2016 - 12:40 PM


To understand how miserably our health care and justice systems are failing the most marginalized members of our community, you need only sit down with Vernon defence lawyer Claire Mastop.

She spoke out this week about the need for more treatment beds and mental health services after watching clients slip through the cracks and wind up back in jail, simply because there was not enough help in the community.

You can hear the frustration in her voice as she describes the seemingly endless cycle of drug and/or mental health-fuelled crimes, breaches, and court dates, followed by well-intentioned efforts to get clean, proceeded by relapses, more breaches, and accumulating jail time. 

Many of her clients did not enjoy rosy childhoods. Substance abuse, trauma and abuse often characterize the early years of these offenders — I’ve heard it dozens of times in court proceedings. They are people often mired in poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health struggles. Some are homeless, and many do not even have a cell phone with which to call their lawyer, instead forced to communicate within cold courtroom walls. How do you abide by bail conditions like abstaining from drugs and alcohol when you don’t have a roof over your head? How do you even stick to an imposed curfew when you don’t have a fixed address?

The sad truth is people with addictions and mental health issues are piling up in prisons and it’s not good for anyone — not the public, not the backlogged court system, not crowded prisons, not taxpayers and most definitely not offenders.

In a 2012 report, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association went so far as to call B.C.’s prisons ‘warehouses for the internment of the mentally ill.’ The report, titled ‘Justice Denied: The Causes of B.C.’s Criminal Justice System Crisis’ found that people with mental health issues are using too many police, court and jail resources instead of more efficient — and more humane — healthcare resources. 

People suffering from mental health and addictions issues represent a tidal wave in the justice system: Over 30 per cent of people sentenced in B.C. provincial courts have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder, and an additional 26 per cent with a medical disorder unrelated to substance abuse, according to a 2008 study. The report found that most offenders with a substance use disorder also had an accompanying mental disorder.

In 2010, the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security delivered a report in the House of Commons outlining mental health, drug and alcohol addiction in the federal correctional system and determined 80 per cent of offenders serving prison sentences of two or more years have problems with drugs and alcohol, while roughly one in ten men and one in five women suffer from serious mental disorders. It states: “Correctional institutions should not be serving as hospitals by default.”

And yet, there’s compelling evidence to suggest that six years after that report came out, prisons are still operating as so-called ‘warehouses’ for addicts and the mentally ill. 

Those who work within the justice system know this and are trying to change things. Defence lawyers like Claire Mastop, who argue for rehabilitation, not just retribution, are doing their best to make a difference. Judges too seem to understand the need to curtail an offender’s destructive path. Many times I’ve seen judges opt for sentences crafted to involve mandatory counselling and treatment. Many times have I heard them genuinely wish the offender good luck. They mean it in the best way possible when they say ‘I don’t want to see you again.’

But a good lawyer and an optimistic judge can only do so much. When that offender leaves the courtroom or the jailhouse, they need strong community services waiting for them, otherwise they are, in many cases, doomed to fail. That means an ample supply of treatment beds, supportive housing, and accessible mental health resources, for a start.

We know what the problem is, and we know how to minimize it too. At least half a dozen reports by standing committees, universities and advocacy groups I read on this subject call for more robust community services for people with addictions and mental health issues. We’ve got enough studies. We know what we need to do. We just need to get on with doing it.

— Charlotte Helston is the Vernon reporter for iNFOnews.ca. 

News from © iNFOnews, 2016

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