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Submission to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology on Bill S-208

An Act to establish the Canadian Commission on Mental Health and Justice
Submitted by Sue O'Sullivan, Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
March 25, 2015

The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime (OFOVC) is an independent resource for victims in Canada. The Office was created in 2007 to ensure the federal government meets its responsibilities to victims of crime.

Our mandate relates exclusively to matters of federal jurisdiction and enables the Office:

  • to promote access by victims to existing federal programs and services for victims;
  • to address complaints of victims about compliance with the provisions of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that apply to victims of crimes committed by offenders under federal jurisdiction;
  • to promote awareness of the needs and concerns of victims and the applicable laws that benefit victims of crime, including to promote the principles set out in the Canadian Statement of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime with respect to matters of federal jurisdiction, among criminal justice personnel and policy makers;
  • to identify and review emerging and systemic issues, including those issues related to programs and services provided or administered by the Department of Justice or the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, that impact negatively on victims of crime; and
  • to facilitate access by victims to existing federal programs and services by providing them with information and referrals.

Position

In relation to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology’s review of Bill S-208 “An Act to establish the Canadian Commission on Mental Health and Justice” the OFOVC supports its intention, and recognizes the urgent need for the work outlined in the bill.

In particular, the provisions to study the mental health needs of victims of crime and their families, and to examine ways in which the criminal justice system can better address their needs are fully supported. Moreover, provisions to study the support needs of accused deemed not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder and, and the mental health needs of federal offenders are also specifically fully supported by the OFOVC, as victims want those who have committed the crime to receive the supports and treatment they need to deal with the root causes of criminal behaviour, including effective mental health treatment. In effect, victims of crime want offenders to receive the help they need, so they will not re-offend. In light of this, the OFOVC supports the intention of the bill, and fervently agrees that more work must be done to assist in preventing, diverting, and supporting those with mental illness who are involved in the justice and corrections systems.

This being said, the OFOVC questions whether the establishment of a new Commission is the best avenue for undertaking this work, given that there may be an existing mechanism through the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which may be better positioned to do this work should its mandate be revised, and the necessary resources be made available.

Rationale

Studying the mental health needs of victims of crime

For some victims of crime, the psychological wounds endure long after the time of crime. Victims of crime may suffer intense fear, shock, and terror in the course of their victimization, followed by feelings such as anger, anxiety, depression, social isolation, and helplessness. Survivors of prolonged, repeated victimization, such as abused children and abused women, may develop severe mental health problems.

The long term impacts of crime victimization can be seen in multiple domains, including but not limited to parenting skills, impaired occupational functioning, higher rates of unemployment and problematic intimate relationships. While not all crime victims need mental health services to deal with the psychological and emotional aftermath of victimization, there are many crime victims who need specialized mental health services to help them begin and continue the healing process. This is often not limited to victims themselves, but family members who may also experience a significant traumatic reaction, especially in cases of murder and serious personal injury.

Much attention is often paid to the long term mental health needs of offenders in terms of supporting their rehabilitation and breaking the cycle of reoffending. However, studies also show that victims that victims of crime have a statistically higher tendency to be victimized again either shortly thereafter or much later in adulthood, as in the case of child sexual abuse. This speaks to the similar need for rehabilitation through specialized supports and mental health treatment to end the cycle of victimization. Studies have also shown, in addition to victims’ greater likelihood of revictimization, that victims find professional mental health help to be effective only when it is promptly accessed and offered on an ongoing basis.

This suggests that the mental health needs of victims of crime are specific and long-lasting. Often, supports following victimization are offered over the short term, while the needs of victims can be life-long. Canada would significantly benefit from quality research related to the mental health needs of victims of crime and their families, including an examination of ways in which the criminal justice system can better address their needs to break the cycle of victimization and support their long-term recovery. Accordingly, the OFOVC supports the identification of the need to study the mental health needs of victims of crime and their families, and the subsequent examination of ways in which the criminal justice system can better address those needs, as outlined in Bill S-208.

Studying the mental health needs of federal offenders

Given the fact that individuals living with mental health problems or illnesses are highly over- represented in the criminal justice system , and that mental disorders among inmates in the federal correctional system are up to three times as common as in the Canadian population at large , the necessity of better diverting , and supporting those with mental illness in the criminal justice and corrections contexts cannot be overlooked. Victims often express that they want offenders to receive the help they need to address the root causes of their criminality so they do not go on to re-offend. In situations where mental disorders are not identified, victims have communicated great priority in offenders receiving relevant and effective correctional programming to provide them with the tools they need to address their criminal behaviour and rehabilitate. Similarly, for federal offenders where a mental disorder has been diagnosed, victims of crime support the provision of access to and delivery of quality mental health care services and programs during incarceration.

Ongoing community support for accused found Not Criminally Responsible

While the provision of mental health care services for offenders within the federal correctional context is important, the OFOVC has also heard from victims of crime related to the need for greater supports in the community for accused found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder (NCR accused), in addition to the need for the provision of more information to victims of crime.

In relation to victims of NCR accused, one of the concerns heard most often from victims by the OFOVC is about the level of supervision of the accused in the community post-discharge, particularly in situations of homicide and other serious personal injury offences. Specifically, victims of crime have expressed significant concern related to the supports in place for NCR accused to maintain their mental health while after they have been discharged, including monitoring to ensure they are abiding by conditions, including remaining on medication. Victims have also expressed that greater emphasis needs to be placed on access to mental health support services to prevent crimes from occurring in the first place. Committing a crime should not serve as a means through which to access mental health help.

Further, victims have expressed that they would like to obtain more information related to an NCR accused throughout the review board process. Essentially victims of crime would like to receive information consistent with what victims receive in the federal corrections system. Victims have expressed that increased information would contribute significantly to a greater sense of personal safety. Examples of this information include: the location of the forensic facility where the accused is detained, conditions of release when accused are discharged into the community, notification of increased restriction placed on the accused, etc. Victims have expressed that increased information would allow for a greater sense of personal safety, so that they know appropriate measures are being taken to ensure public safety while supporting the accused to access treatment and to maintain mental health.

An exploration of the supports in place at the community level to both prevent persons with mental illness from committing crime, and to respond to NCR accused after a crime would be worthwhile to include in any examination of mental health and the criminal justice system, as this would serve to better understand and address the needs of victims of crime.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada

While the OFOVC supports the important work being called for in Bill S-208, the OFOVC questions whether the establishment of a new Commission is the best avenue for undertaking this work, given that there may be an existing mechanism through the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), which may be better positioned to do this work should its mandate be revised, and the necessary resources be made available.

As you are aware, the MHCC was created by the Government of Canada in 2007, arising out of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science, and Technology’s landmark study, “Out of the Shadows At Last”, which called for a national commission on mental health. The MHCC is funded by Health Canada and has a 10-year mandate (2007-2017). Among its initiatives, the MHCC’s work includes the country’s first mental health strategy.

The OFOVC understands that the MHCC is currently undertaking a variety of activities related to mental health and justice. Further, the MHCC has expressed to the OFOVC that it has the capacity to undertake further work in this area and that it is currently is proposing an updated mandate, whereby it anticipates that work related to mental health and the justice and correction systems will continue to play a significant role.

Accordingly, the OFOVC encourages the Senate to seriously consider whether the MHCC may be best positioned to conduct the work outlined in the bill, provided that it receives the necessary resources.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the OFOVC supports the overall intention of Bill S-208, particularly the provisions to study the mental health needs of victims of crime and their families, and to examine ways in which the criminal justice system can better address their needs, provisions to study the support needs of accused deemed not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder and, and the mental health needs of federal offenders. In light of this, the OFOVC believes that more work must be done to assist in preventing, diverting, and supporting those with mental illness who are involved in the justice and corrections systems.

The OFOVC also encourages Senate to consider whether the MHCC is an appropriate and well positioned avenue for conducting the work outlined in the bill, rather than the establishment of a new and specific Commission.

I thank the Committee for their leadership in the area of mental health and justice, and for the opportunity to provide this written submission for consideration.