Years ago, when my criminology degree was fresh, I did a volunteer stint as a court worker for the Ottawa Elizabeth Fry Society. My job, one morning a week, was to show up at First Appearance Court, keep an eye out for women who looked like they needed some help, and try to match them up with the appropriate community resources.
I remember one woman who was obviously at the mercy of a major mental illness. She didn’t have a lawyer – or anybody else – with her. She was immersed in her own reality, which seemed radically different from the ‘real’ reality. She was agitated, disoriented, paranoid and incapable of carrying on a cogent conversation.
The prosecutor, the duty counsel and the judge all shared quite a few laughs at this woman’s expense. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but it was clear that her mental illness – and their comments on it – were a source of great amusement to them. This took place in full public view, in a courtroom full of people, including the woman herself, and me. (I am ashamed to admit that I did not stand up and ask those men to stop mocking her. As an Elizabeth Fry volunteer, and as a human being, I should have. But I was intimidated, so I sat in appalled and complicit silence.)
If you’ve ever been up on charges, you probably already know how confusing it is. They talk their own language in court – a language not designed for the purposes of clearly communicating what’s going on to the defendant. In fact, I think it’s designed to obscure what’s going on, and to require the defendant to have a paid representative who will translate what’s going on into English. Unfortunately this translation is often half-assed and provided on-the-fly, after-the-fact, and while multi-tasking. If you’re poor, and your crime is on the mundane side, you can expect to be very poorly represented; you get what you pay for in the criminal justice system. After it’s all over, you’re lucky if duty counsel even takes a minute to explain to you What Just Happened.
I was reminded of that mentally ill woman when I attended the session on Mental Health Court at the Mental Health Symposium. She would have been the ideal candidate for this innovative program, which unfortunately didn’t exist at the time.
Ottawa became home to Ontario’s first Mental Health Court in 1994, and Canada’s first Mental Health Youth Court, in 2008. The adult court sits three times a week and the youth court sits once a month. It’s not enough, but courtroom real estate is at a premium.
Mental Health Courts emerged because some people working in the system recognized that our courts and jails had become dumping grounds for people with unmet mental health and social needs. People with serious mental illnesses (particularly in combination with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, developmental disabilities, addictions, homelessness and other concurrent disorders) were a huge drain on the system’s resources, and yet the system was failing them. The criminal justice system is an expensive and ineffective way to house people.
People weren’t just slipping through the cracks, they were getting permanently wedged into them. This is what happens when you effectively criminalize mental illness, poverty, and other health and social problems that are, at their core, not criminal in nature.
The Mental Health Courts work by trying to divert people with major mental illnesses away from the criminal justice system and towards the health care system. They try to get everybody who has been identified as having a major mental illness into a special courtroom which has a dedicated Crown attorney, judge, clerk and duty counsel. Participation is voluntary. If a defendant refuses, they are processed back through the regular court system.
Rather than approaching each case in the traditionally adversarial way (prosecution versus defense, or the people versus the accused), everybody in the courtroom works collaboratively from a case management perspective, and the individual’s legal problems are considered in the context of all their problems – health, financial, housing, social, etc. Case workers help clients link to appropriate community-based resources in an effort to ensure that their basic needs are met, because it’s unreasonable to expect people with major mental illnesses to be able to function well in society when their basic needs are not being met.
The goals of Mental Health Courts include reducing pressure on the regular court system, improving access to mental health treatment, improving access to other community services, making court more user-friendly, slowing the revolving door phenomenon, reducing recidivism, and ultimately benefiting society by reducing crime.
By all accounts, it’s working.