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Judge decries role as 'mental health worker' in sentencing teen arsonist

Sydney Leer, 19, was sentenced in Penticton court today for arson, stemming from an Oct.13, 2016 fire that burned four units of a Penticton Avenue townhouse complex.
August 14, 2017 - 5:22 PM

PENTICTON - Judges routinely cite the need to denounce crime and criminals, but today a Penticton provincial court judge reserved his denunciation for a criminal justice system that forces him to be a mental health worker.

"It remains a constant challenge for those involved in the criminal justice system in our de facto roles as mental health workers to ensure those struggling with mental illness are treated fairly and appropriately by the system," Judge Gregory Koturbash said today, Aug. 14.

Before him for sentencing today was Sydney Leer, who had just turned 18 years old in October 2016 when she caused roughly $1.1 million in damage by starting a fire in that burned four units of a Penticton Avenue townhouse complex.

Leer has been in jail since the incident, her hearing delayed several times, once for the completion of a psychological assessment and in another instance after Leer’s lawyer asked to be removed from the case.

Hers has been a particularly complicated case. Koturbash noted psychiatrists' reports concluded Leer exhibited no evidence of psychotic symptoms or thought disorder, but her insight, judgement and relationship with her mother was described as poor, with one doctor concluding Leer was "headed for legal problems and or exploitation from others in the future due to her poor behaviour, entitlement and lack of responsibility for her actions."

A court ordered assessment following Leer's arrest also found her not to be suffering from any sort of disorder that would deprive her from appreciating the nature and quality of her actions, or prevent her from understanding her actions were both legally and morally wrong.

Instead, the doctor referred to Leer as having a borderline personality disorder and possible substance use disorder associated with her use of marijuana and alcohol.
That's what put Koturbash in the position of having to decide how best to address her mental health issues. He opted to sentence her to a longer period of incarceration — just long enough to get her into the federal corrections system to give the best chance of getting help.

"Name one of the largest providers of mental health in this province,” he asked rhetorically before passing sentence. “If you guessed the criminal justice system and our jails, you guessed right."

Crown Prosecutor Kurt Froehlich told court today, Aug. 14, a new psychological assessment had recently been completed in July.

He told court a look into programming options for treatment of Leer’s mental health issues revealed more and better opportunities for treatment in a federal institution as opposed to a provincial correctional centre.

Defence lawyer James Pennington called Leer’s hearing “one of those cases that just bedevil you.” He called Leer “a young person with mental health issues,” adding they were not of sufficient gravity to be declared not guilty by reason of mental disorder.

He said mental health officers in Okanagan Correctional Centre had also been concerned about her well-being during the last 306 days in jail.

The judge said protection of the public is always the most important consideration, in this case "looming large." He said without treatment, Leer continued to be a danger to the community and a high risk to re-offend, adding if he had the authority to place her in a mental institution, he would do so.

"I trust the correctional system will place her in an institution that has a strong psychiatric support where she can receive the necessary care and treatment," he said, imposing a sentence of 1,189 days.

With enhanced credit for time served, Leer has two years remaining in her sentence, which will be followed by a three year probationary period  that includes curfew, no drugs or alcohol, and a lifetime firearms ban condition.

The judge declined to impose a restitution order, saying she had little ability to ever pay it and it would present a significant barrier to her rehabilitation and reintegration into the community.

"I am not without a great deal of sympathy for those individuals who suffered losses that have not been covered by insurance and they ought to be compensated," he said, adding he would leave it to insurance companies and other individuals to pursue Leer in a civil suit if they wish.


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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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