Transforming the Criminal Justice System: Mental Health and Addictions

Transforming the Criminal Justice System: Mental Health and Addictions


This is a story from real people, told in
their own words. It contains information about themes that
may be difficult for some audiences. It’s true to say that people who suffer from mental health issues or alcohol and drug use issues are over-represented in our criminal justice system. For example, we’ll sometimes hear that up
to 80% of individuals incarcerated in federal penitentiaries have a drug or alcohol dependence
problem; and up to 40% of inmates have one or more specific mental health issues. 1 in 3 Canadians will have mental or substance
use disorders at some point in their life. It is estimated that mental health issues
are two to three times more common in prison. I think that if you were to show up in a courtroom at the nearest courthouse on any given Monday
morning, you’d see a whole faction of essentially poor individuals, many of them in situations
of homelessness, many of them not working, or at least with no education, with drug or
alcohol use issues and, in some cases, mental health issues, coming to plead guilty to a
litany of extremely minor infractions, oftentimes non-violent acts. Many of their behaviours, which are essentially
ways to survive on the streets, will be criminalized. So it’s the criminal justice system that
is stuck with these problems, and it uses the tools we have given it – tools that
criminalize a whole series of behaviours, where we use repression and punishment rather
than prevention, treatment and service. In 2012, 34% of Canadians with mental health
or substance use problems came in contact with police, twice as many as those without
these problems. The justice system is the system that, by
default, needs to take on social issues we don’t want to see, or the issues we don’t
invest enough in as a society. When a person is incarcerated, the institutions
are often not equipped to offer these services. Individuals are detained in overpopulated
facilities, and they are placed there on a temporary basis. At the moment, in provincial correctional
centres, there are more people there awaiting trial than people who have been sentenced. So if you’re there temporarily, you don’t
have access to long-term therapy or treatment services. You don’t have access to sterile injection
equipment and you might contract an infectious disease. Or you suffer from mental health issues, and
you don’t have access to services while you’re being detained – or worse, because
you suffer from mental health issues, you’ll be detained in more severe and more restrictive
conditions. You’ll be placed in isolation because we’re
afraid for your safety or for the safety of others, in an environment where you might
develop suicidal tendencies. You might become even more frustrated, your
mental health issues might get worse, etc. I think the system is stuck in a vicious circle. They’ve been repeating the same practices
for years and I often hear different members of the judicial system tell me, “He didn’t
understand this time, but next time, I’ll give him more detention time or a harsher
sentence.” We call this an escalation of penalties. So, we’ll do the same thing, but with more
intensity and we tell ourselves the person will understand. We tell ourselves that he or she will be dissuaded,
that he or she will return to the right path, when it hasn’t worked the first time, when
it probably won’t work the second time. I think the system is stuck in a vicious circle,
in these old, well-established practices that are repeated without asking too many questions
and without necessarily having a complete view of the situation. We’re not necessarily aware of the magnitude
of criminalizing poverty, because we’re constantly trying to fix social issues without
necessarily having the tools to do so. What do I think of the criminal justice system? I think it’s costly, counterproductive,
and it often infringes on the rights of individuals. Despite its good intentions, it doesn’t
succeed in resolving social issues because that’s not necessarily its mission, it’s
not necessarily the objective it set for itself. I don’t think these individuals should be
in prison. I don’t think these individuals should be
in the justice system. Incarceration, detention, is very traumatizing
and stigmatizing, and I think it only makes the situation worse rather than supporting
those who are suffering. How can we transform the Canadian criminal
justice system to better understand substance-use and mental health issues? Join the online discussion and share your
thoughts. To learn more, visit justicetransformation.ca

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