Liberals oppose Bill C-54

Bill C-54 is ineffective policy that will decrease public safety. It plays on the politics of fear to perpetuate myths and stereotypes about mental illness that will only lead to further stigmatization. When we vote this week, we will be standing for increased public safety and evidence-based policies.

bob-raeThis week, when Bill C-54, the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, comes to a vote in the House of Commons, Liberals will stand in opposition to passage of this bill. We will do so because the Bill is ineffective in achieving our priorities of ensuring public safety, the prevention of victimization and the prevention of crime. And we do so because the new Bill is unnecessary. We already have a system that protects the public.

Stigmatizing mental illness is wrong. It also doesn’t work.

We have made our decision after careful review, widespread consultation with experts, lengthy discussion as a Caucus — and on the basis of fact and evidence.

How the system works now in the interests of public safety

There is a delicate balance to strike when dealing with crimes committed by people who, at the time of the act, were too sick to understand what they did wrong. It is a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system that an accused person must have the capacity to understand their actions if they are to be sentenced. When mental illness prevents an accused from appreciating the nature of their action, the law has long presented a third option – not an acquittal, but rather incarceration in a secure facility where psychiatric services are available. The circumstances of those seeking to leave these facilities are then considered by a specialized Review Board system overseen by a judge, supported by a panel of experts, including at least one psychiatrist. These Review Boards are better equipped than regular courts to make determinations about the level of danger such an offender poses to the community and decisions are taken about the best course of care to ensure they do not re-offend.

The Conservatives will try to scare the public into believing that the system is broken. But, in fact, research undertaken by the government’s own Department of Justice shows that the success rate of Review Boards is high – offenders have drastically lower rates of recidivism (or re-offending) than in mainstream corrections systems. Hardly a “get out of jail free” card, research show that offenders diverted to this system are supervised for longer than had they been sent to prison in the first place.

Decreased public safety and questions about constitutionality

Notwithstanding the evidence, the government plans to create a new “High-Risk” category that would greatly alter the way the system works. It would immediately brand someone who has committed one serious offence as liable to repeat offend, or to present a greater risk to society – based on no evidence. This policy negates decades of scientific evaluation and myth busting about mental illness. The new category and its implications (such as a removal of annual reviews of the offender’s condition, in favour of reviews only every three years) will force such offenders into the mainstream prison system – from which they will almost certainly emerge far more dangerous and more likely to re-offend. In fact, the likelihood is that they will reoffend at a rate five to six times higher than had they gone through the current system. This represents a real threat to public safety.

No less an authority than Vic Toews has stated that too many people with mental illness are in “the wrong place”, jail. Ironically, one of the effects of this proposal will be to further this trend.

The “High Risk” proposal has no basis in law and has raised serious questions of constitutionality for the Canadian Bar Association.

Promoting stigmatization

The bottom-line message of Bill C-54 is that Canadians living with mental illnesses are dangerous and should be feared. As the Canadian Psychiatric Association has made clear, there is no evidence of a mounting risk to the public from people living with mental health problems and illnesses.

C-54 will increase the damaging stigma surrounding mental illness. This stigma will in fact make it harder to get people into mental health treatment. And yet, as the Mental Health Commission of Canada notes, with some irony, it is treatment that serves as the most effective preventive measure for the small number of people with mental illness who commit serious offenses.

Bill C-54 is ineffective policy that will decrease public safety. It plays on the politics of fear to perpetuate myths and stereotypes about mental illness that will only lead to further stigmatization. When we vote this week, we will be standing for increased public safety and evidence-based policies.

We hope you will stand with us.

Bob Rae

Click on the following links to read more about Bill C-54, including reviews by the Canadian Bar Association, the Mental Health Commission of Canada , the Canadian Psychiatric Association , as well as a joint statement from Canada’s mental health community.