Youth, mental health, and the law.

AuthorMitchell, Peter Jon
PositionFamily Law - Reprint

A decade-old idea in adult justice has been introduced recently for youth in Canada. A Mental Health Court (MHC) for youth officially opened in Ottawa in May. Teens with serious diagnosable mental illnesses comprise ah estimated one-fifth of young offenders. Connecting ill youth with treatment is important, but just where treatment and justice should intersect is a trying question. MHCs attempt to break the cycle of offending by coming alongside the justice process to connect mentally ill offenders with treatment.

Adult MHCs are operating in Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, and are in development in other provinces and territories. Utilizing the same methodology as drug courts, MHCs divert minor cases out of the congested court system, providing the mentally ill with treatment options. Participation is voluntary and mental illness must be the most likely contributor to the infraction. A multi-disciplinary team assesses the case and prescribes treatment. In some North American jurisdictions, charges can be stayed upon the completion of treatment, and, in some cases, defendants can continue in a criminal court to contest the charges.

The youth Mental Health Court complements a significant aim of the Youth Criminal Justice Act; that is to divert minor crime from the court system by using alternative measures that can be effective in reducing recidivism. The YCJA also states that pre-trial incarceration cannot replace treatment of welfare measures, but the court can prescribe intensive rehabilitative custody for serious offenders diagnosed with a mental illness. These provisions should protect youth and open the door to innovative measures that help mentally ill youth. The question is, how effective will the MHC be at reducing recidivism through early intervention in a young person's life?

Certainly, there is an uncomfortable stigma attached to mental illness and the resulting social behaviour that can accompany the symptoms. The tension between mental health and criminal justice is difficult to navigate, especially when young people are involved. There is a public perception among some that the YCJA is soft on young criminals. The MHC could be seen by some as releasing young people from personal responsibility. However, applications to the MHC are not automatic and are subject to agreement from the Crown Attorney's office. One should consider the costs to young people and society when mental health issues are not adequately addressed...

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