More Good Than Harm?

I don't think so!

Howard Fluxgold

Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(8), pp. 19-20

stock photoIt was a damp and windy evening in February 2004 when the phone rang. It was around 9 p.m. I had come to recognize phone calls at this hour as usually bearing bad news and this one was no exception.

It was David* calling, in a panic. I could tell by the sound of his voice, as well as by what he was saying, that he was in trouble. He was focused on not being able to do his chores at the psychiatric group home he lived in—that was of greater concern to him than getting out of the hell-hole that is known as the Main Street jail.

David was in jail for the first time in his 27 years. The only prior brush with police he'd had was when he ran away from hospital on four occasions. He had been involuntarily certified, so the hospital phoned the police, warrants were issued and police returned him to the hospital. On another occasion, David's mental health team called Car 87 to take him from his apartment to hospital.

And so began a 20-month odyssey through the so-called justice system.

What did this young man with schizophrenia do to warrant being snatched by Vancouver's 'finest' just as he was sitting down to supper at his group home? To warrant being locked up for five days?

David had decided that he needed to return to the hospital, where he had spent much of the last year—and the best way to get admitted was to act 'crazy.' It makes perfect sense to me. He started jumping on cars on the Burrard Street Bridge at rush hour. He was chased down by police, including the Chief of Police, who was stuck in traffic on his way home. But before he was caught, David had dented a few cars and had pushed or punched a bus driver who had stopped to help. He was eventually taken to a hospital, where he spent another two weeks before being released to the group home.

The police told the hospital emergency staff on two different occasions during the two weeks David was there to notify them when he was being released, so they could charge him. According to my son's lawyer and the hospital, the police had no legal right to make that request, and the hospital had no legal obligation to honour it—but honour it they did.

After being notified of David's pending release from hospital, the police did not show up. Instead, they waited a couple of weeks before arriving at David's group home on a Thursday evening at supper time.

Did they know that this would mean at least a night in jail for David, if not more? Did they care?

David was taken to jail on that Thursday evening, and appeared in court the next morning, totally unable to fend for himself. He was represented by duty counsel (a lawyer available to give advice on the day of a court appearance), because I was unable to find a lawyer overnight. The duty counsel, who didn't know David at all, agreed with the Crown to keep him in jail for a psychiatric assessment. Because the psychiatric assessment didn't take place until the Sunday, David spent several more days waiting in jail, waiting for the assessment.

Now, here is someone who has spent at least half of the previous 24 months in hospital, has a psychiatric support team guided by one of the best doctors in Canada, and lives in a psychiatric group home—yet the court required another doctor's opinion! I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. And when I saw the psychiatrist's report I was truly astounded. Hand-written in a childish script on one sheet of foolscap, the report said that David "appeared depressed." Even someone without a mental illness might be depressed after spending five days in jail—especially if they had no criminal record and had never been in jail.

The psychiatric assessment determined David was fit to stand trial. By his next appearance before a judge, David did have his own lawyer. But for some reason, the Crown attorney was treating this case as though it were a serial murder. The Crown representative refused to agree on a guilty plea in exchange for a conditional discharge, which would mean no criminal record. David's lawyer told me that either a stay of the charges, or a conditional discharge with community service, was the standard way of dealing with similar cases. He was uncertain as to why the Crown, during the next six monthly appearances, refused to settle the case that way. But that is what happened.

Finally, the Crown and lawyer agreed to set a date for trial—about one year from the date of the incident. It was all I could do not to fall off my chair in fits of hysterical laughter when the judge, the Crown and the lawyer agreed to set aside a full day of court time for a case in which David was willing to plead guilty. It is no wonder our courts are clogged. No one could ever have felt more contempt for the justice system than I did on that occasion.

Fortunately, just before the trial began, the Crown attorney reversed his position and offered to drop the charges in return for community service.

Coda

Several months after David's arrest, I attended a conference on mental health and the law. At a panel discussion on what was working and what was not, Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham said that when it came to the mentally ill, "Police action must do more good than harm." What, I wondered, was the good that came from this police action? What is the purpose of throwing someone with no criminal record, who is charged with public mischief and common assault—anyone, let alone someone who has a mental illness—in jail for five days?

Not long after David's incarceration, he attempted suicide in June 2004, and spent a week in the trauma unit. That was followed by several months back on a psychiatric ward, where psychiatrists urged us to deal with the charges as quickly as possible because of the stress they were causing. But it was more than a year before the matter was brought to a conclusion.

As I watched David's journey through the justice system unfold, I couldn't help but become even more cynical. I noted that another 'danger to society' arrived at the courthouse in a limo with his high-priced lawyers. I noted that he didn't spend any time in jail, although he was, like David, charged with common assault—for breaking someone's neck and perhaps ending their career. I noted that the court didn't think he was 'crazy' for doing so, nor did the Crown seek a psychiatric exam. And the court quickly accepted a guilty plea in exchange for a conditional discharge.

Yes. There is one law for a professional hockey player—and another for those who have a mental illness.

 
About the author

Howard is a freelance writer living in Vancouver

 

* pseudonym

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