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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Shelley Cook, MA

Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), p. 32-33

Changing the way we work with mentally disordered offenders in the community

Just shoot them all!” “We have enough clients without trying to deal with those people.” “Lock them up and throw away the key.” “Put them all back on the bus to where they came from.” These are commonly held sentiments in reference to best dealing with particular client populations. Not surprisingly then, the most significant challenge to doing the work of helping others is the public attitude that exists toward certain client groups—in my case, for example, criminally involved and at ­risk youth and adults.

If public attitude today seems harsher than in the past, there are a few reasons this might be occurring: increased worry about safety and security that comes with an aging population; divisiveness between community stakeholders on how to best address social­ and health ­related problems; and sensationalized media accounts informing us of the constant threat of crime and violence in our own communities.

The majority of people may well recognize the value of innovative programs that address root causes of criminal involvement, such as addictions and concurrent disorders. As a society, we may also appreciate the fact that we cannot solve our social and health­ related problems through incarceration. But the allure of simple solutions to complex problems can be very powerful and difficult to resist.

Public attitude and concern is destructive to the goal of making our communities safer when public opinion and not research and best and promising practice, drives the creation of legislation that ultimately serves to punish and further marginalize the disenfranchised. The public expects incarceration to deter crime by teaching people a lesson, but harsh punishments do nothing to address the important factors that contribute to crime, such as addictions, mental illness and other disabilities. Prison will not address any of these issues; it just hides the problem away—for a while.

Public attitudes are also destructive when they encourage increased division between service organizations; when the fear and anger of the community is heaped upon individuals in need of service and, in some cases, on the organizations working to meet the needs of these individuals; and when public education on what will actually work to improve the lives of individuals and the community as a whole is lacking.

Greater public concern and criticism has resulted, however, in some important lessons about the future of services—that is, that they be evidence ­based, be comprehensive, and involve a range of organizations and services working together in new partnerships.

The John Howard Society of the Central and South Okanagan has developed the Collaborative Justice Program as a way to build upon lessons learned. The program promotes public involvement and brings together community resources and expertise. It is based upon emerging best practice in the use of meaningful diversion for adults with addictions and/or disabilities such as mental illness. Individualized services are wrapped around high­ risk and high ­need individuals to address underlying root causes of criminal conduct and to prevent re-involvement with the criminal justice system.

Hand in hand with the development of the Collaborative Justice Program has come public education. In an effort to highlight what is currently having an impact within the mentally disabled offender population, our agency held a public symposium in early December 2005 called Community Restoration and Social Justice: Integration and Collaboration from Criminal Justice to Community.

The one thing that united all the programs featured during the symposium—whether it was the Vancouver Intensive Supervision Unit (VISU), which works with mentally disorder offenders on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, or Project Link out of New York State, which deals with repeat offenders with serious and persistent mental health issues—was that these programs are true egalitarian partnerships between departments and professionals that historically have not worked together. For example, Project Link is a university­ led consortium that integrates criminal justice, health care and community support services, and VISU represents a partnership between BC Corrections and the Provincial Health Services Authority. There is willingness on the part of those involved to throw out old service boundaries and also to work together in the space that exists between traditional service lines.

It is clear there is a lot that can be done that works; the aforementioned programs are just two examples. The best thing that we can do as Canadians is prevent individuals with complex health and social needs from getting caught up in the criminal justice system. We need to decide that our criminal justice system will be based on best evidence about what works, and that means resisting the appeal of one ­dimensional solutions to multidimensional problems.

About the Author

Shelley is Executive Director of the John Howard Society of the Central and South Okanagan, located in Kelowna, BC. She has worked for more than 15 years with criminally involved youth and adults in the community and in institutional setting


John Howard Society would like to acknowledge the Vancouver Foundation and the Central Okanagan Foundation for their financial support of the Collaborative Justice Program. The society would also like to thank the sponsors of our symposium: the City of Kelowna, the law firm of Pushor Mitchell, Interior Savings Credit Union, the Coast Capri Hotel and CS Printmaster.

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