Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ex-doctor's release proves need for new law, minister says - Montreal - CBC News

This story reviews a fairly horrible case:

Ex-doctor's release proves need for new law, minister says - Montreal - CBC News:

We don't need to get into the details because ... well ... I don't want to write about them. Instead, what I want to talk about is the idea that mentally ill people are a threat to society. The idea that society -- caste by the minister as "victims" -- need to be protected from the mentally ill.

This is a difficult subject to write about for a number of reasons. The key reason is this: when a crime is committed most people want someone to go to jail for that crime. They want some form of retribution. One of the people who left comments on the CBC news story, for instance, wrote this:

"If he's well enough to be discharged from Pinel, then perhaps he's well enough to spend some time in prison, yes?"

I think this is fairly common view and one the minister seems to share: a verdict that suggests that a person is "not criminally responsible" for their actions -- that is, not mentally competent -- is viewed by many people as a dodge. This poster is saying "once they are better, they should go to jail."

I will confess that I look at matters from a different direction. I don't look for vengeance or retribution from the justice system. I don't enjoy the idea of anyone spending any time in jail, even if that is necessary and (indeed) fair. There are many things in life that are necessary and that we do; it does not mean that we like them or take any enjoyment out of them. Prosecuting criminals is one of those things, for me.

But, in the case of those who are mentally ill ... we have another issue. Mental illness is not a dodge. It is not an effort to escape punishment; nor is it claiming that the criminal is a victim.  It is an illness. If you have met anyone who is mentally ill, you know what I mean. Some people who have mental illnesses are functional others are not; some suffer from periodic episodes, others have a daily struggle. It is truly horrible if a person who has some sort of mental illness that impedes competence commits an action that causes pain or the death of others (in this case his own children).   And, it may be necessary to institutionalize individuals who are a threat to society or themselves. But, let us be clear, putting these individuals behind bars is not an act of justice. It is a necessity. Locking up the mentally ill for a longer period of time because people want "to see justice" is not the act of a forward looking government that is concerned about social welfare. It is a reactionary position that scapegoats the mentally ill and treats those people who have mental illnesses as if they were criminals waiting to happen.

We need a different discourse; we need a different conversation about this issue then the one the minister wants to have. The conversation he wants to have fits into a "law and order" discourse ... one that is consistent with a government that builds super prisons as the crime rates goes down with the rationale that its own statistics - -which tell us that the crime rate is going to down -- must be wrong. The problem with this discourse is that it misses the point and hence does nothing to address an issue that sorely needs to be addressed.

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