Mental health and justice experts provide views on Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act
Bill C-14, the Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) Reform Act has gone to second reading in the Senate and has been a key subject at the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in Ottawa recently. Last month, the Committee heard from Justice Richard Schneider, chair of the Ontario Review Board and Review Boards of Canada, Dr. Sandy Simpson, chief of forensic psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Chris Summerville, Chief Executive Officer of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada and Dr. John Bradford, a forensic psychiatrist and Associate Chief (Forensic) at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduced Bill C-14, formerly known as Bill C-54, outlining the three main components of the legislation which include:
- Putting public safety first in the decision-making process about NCR-accused persons
- Creating a new category of high-risk NCR accused. The new designation will mean that individuals cannot obtain an absolute or conditional discharge unless the designation is removed by the court after a recommendation for the review board. The review period can also be extended for up to 3 years for offenders in this category.
- Enhancing victim’s involvement by notifying them, upon their request, when the NCR accused is released along with their intended place of residence
This bill will likely result in more individuals with mental health issues in jail and fewer NCR verdicts
– Justice Richard Schneider
The expert witnesses then outlined their concerns regarding this bill. Justice Schneider began by stating that this bill will likely result in more individuals with mental health issues in jail and fewer NCR verdicts due to the restrictive nature of the high-risk accused designation. This is problematic given cases like the Ashley Smith inquiry which show that placing individuals with mental health issues in jail is counter-therapeutic and worsens long-term outcomes. He stated “My great concern is that while I applaud the government for the direction they want to take in improving public safety, all of the data is saying turn left, and the bill [Bill C-14] proposes that we turn right.”
Dr. Simpson echoed these comments outlining that there is no clinical benchmark for the 3-year review board extension and that passing this bill will likely not improve public safety because the bill does not address the key issues that are present in the forensic system. Summerville also stated that both the needs and rights of victims and those found not criminally responsible are equally important and that this Bill and the high-risk designation will further stigmatize individuals with mental health issues from seeking services and supports.
Finally, Dr. Bradford agreed with the other witnesses that some of the wording and definitions within this bill are arbitrary and that the high-risk offender designation will likely be over used. If applied appropriately, this bill could work for the very small number of individuals to which it applied, said Dr. Bradford. He reiterated the comments of Justice Schneider saying that the review board system is not broken and that Canada may benefit from legislation around a uniform mental health act and right to treatment for people with mental health issues.