Addressing Mental health in jails fails as well

Response to Wark, B. (2008) "Jail Failure". The Coast. Page 5; 27 March.

In response to the excellent overview titled "Jail Failure" published in the March 27-April 3 issue of the Coast, we believe that it is important to highlight several issues that relate to the overcrowding of provincial jails. We agree with Bruce Wark that the answer is not to build more jails and employ more prison guards, but rather to take a closer look at the individuals who are overcrowding these jails and examine why they are there.

It has been estimated that as many as half of the incarcerated population suffers from mental illness(es), a substance abuse problem, and/or a learning disability. Because of a shortage of services and a lack of understanding by society, the mentally ill are not receiving the care they require and are instead being sent to prisons. In a statement in on March 8, 2007, Supreme Court Justice Beverly McLaughlin stated "such people are not true criminals, not real wrong-doers in the traditional sense of those words. They become involved with the law because they are mentally ill, addicted or both." Many police officers believe that mentally ill perpetrators represent a disproportionate number of individuals incarcerated for minor crimes. Some family members have noted that crimes may be committed or encouraged to be committed in order for a mentally ill person to be arrested. This may represent a "faint hope" that arrest will lead to treatment that for a variety of different reasons is not otherwise available.

There are alternatives to longer prison sentences (which studies show are not effective in decreasing repeat offenses), such as Drug Treatment Courts and Mental Health Courts, which may meet the treatment needs of those with mental disorders. Such programs attempt to identify and address the underlying causes of the criminal activity (such as behaviours associated with mental illness). Mental Health Courts have been successfully implemented in many parts of Canada and the United States. They are specifically designed for those who commit low level crimes (i.e. those who would be sentenced to serve time in a provincial facility). The courts attempt to connect with community-based treatment through the interventions of mental health professionals. Studies in the United States show that those who have gone through the Mental Health Court received more access to mental health services and spent fewer days in jail than if they were sentenced in a criminal court.

These "problem-solving" courts are also more cost-effective for taxpayers. According to Juristat, Statistics Canada (2004-2005), the cost of incarcerating a federal prisoner was $93,000 per year, and $52,000 per year in a provincial institution. On the other hand, it costs approximately $8,000 for an individual to obtain addiction treatment through a Drug Treatment Court. We are aware that the Province of Nova Scotia is considering the development and implementation of similar courts and we encourage the Department of Health to move ahead quickly and thoughtfully in this matter.

We need to move away from the common misconception that locking someone up and throwing away the key is an appropriate manner by which to address mental health problems in our society. Mental illness and addiction are health issues and are not effectively dealt with by the criminal justice system.

Dr. Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health,

Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Dalhousie University, 902-470-6598

Ainslie McDougall, M.Sc., IWK Health Centre, 902-470-6592

By Dr. Stan Kutcher, Ainslie McDougall, M.Sc.

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