Recommendations on mentally ill offenders provide good first steps

Offenders with mental health needs should not be in jail, a task force concluded, as it recommended ways Ontario can put fewer people in pre-trial detention, particularly those with mental illness and addiction issues.

The task force was established to look at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre after overcrowding got so bad that inmates were reportedly forced to sleep on mattresses in the showers.

It issued a report with 42 recommendations and many are aimed at the correctional system province-wide.

“In appropriate circumstances, offenders with mental health needs should not be in correctional institutions due to the complexities associated with mental health issues and the limited ability of correctional facilities to provide appropriate care,” said the report.

Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi said his ministry has to do a better job providing mental health supports, but it’s not within his power to dictate that offenders with mental health needs should not be jailed.

“Where our hands are tied, and I have to be very frank, is that when it comes to decisions around who gets bail or not, that’s not a decision that I control or the Ministry of the Attorney General controls. That’s a judiciary decision,” he said.

“However, if we could provide better diversion programming, that may compel the judiciary, they may feel comfortable that this person could be better served somewhere in the community.”

The report recommended the government develop a policy for police services to divert “low-risk individuals” away from pre-trial detention and designate classes of offences for which accused would presumptively be released from police stations.

The government should also implement more diversion programs – alternatives to criminal prosecution – for people with mental illness and addiction issues, the task force recommended. And the courts shouldn’t impose bail conditions that are likely to criminalize the symptoms of a mental illness, it added.

Justices of the peace, who hear bail applications, should also be given more training on those matters, the task force recommended.

Though the task force looked at one jail specifically, the report provides a blueprint for provincial correctional facilities, Naqvi said.

“The challenges that we’re seeing in (the Ottawa jail) are, I think, quite symptomatic of challenges we see across the province,” he said.

In the last decade, the percentage of male inmates admitted to the Ottawa detention centre with “substance alerts” on file rose from 25 to 40 in 2014-15, the report said. Given those numbers, the government should expand programs and support for addiction issues, the task force recommended.

The report also urged the government to transfer the delivery of health care in provincial correctional institutions to the Ministry of Health. Naqvi said preliminary discussions have started.

Ontario is in the midst of a review of segregation policies, and Naqvi has said hard caps are being considered on time inmates can spend in segregation.

The task force recommended a “significant reduction” in the use of segregation at the Ottawa facility – nearly 80 per cent of the 130 inmates who responded to a survey for the task force said they had spent time in segregation – and noted some members wanted the practice abolished entirely.

In an interview with, Toronto criminal lawyer Roots Gadhia says it’s a great step forward that the report is recommending the courts, including justices of the peace, should shift the focus away from a risk-adverse, incarceration-based system that effectively places people in jail as a Band-Aid solution.

“These recommendations provide good first steps toward beginning to address the core issues that surround offenders with mental health and/or addiction issues – incarcerating them is not the answer,” she tells the online legal publication.

Gadhia notes mental health courts already exist in Ontario and other jurisdictions so many people suffering from these issues are diverted out of the criminal court system. For those matters that end up in mental health court, the law takes into consideration that someone with these issues shouldn’t be incarcerated, she says.

Gadhia says many people who are incarcerated have mental health issues and/or addiction problems but haven’t been diagnosed. She says it’s a complex problem.

“The truth of the matter is the majority of people who are within the criminal court system – especially those reoffending – aren’t drug dealers who are entrepreneurial but are people who keep coming back because they suffer from anger-management issues, are bipolar or have some other mental health issue,” she says. “Those individuals, I would say, aren’t necessarily being ushered through the mental health court stream. Instead, those people, as many of us who work in the system recognize, are individuals who don’t seem to learn from their past behaviour and continue to act out with violence or a drug addiction etc.”

Gadhia says even those individuals would be better served if addiction and mental health programs would allow people to enter into treatment programs while facing charges.

“Currently many programs refuse to accept people until their court matters have been resolved,” she says.

Back to News