Mental health: A factor in sentencing?

By Justin Ling April 27, 201827 April 2018

Mental health: A factor in sentencing?

A new bill, if passed, will require the courts to take into account offender’s mental health status before sentencing.

Bill C-375 comes before the House of Commons justice committee today for the first time, as MPs seem set to push ahead on the bill.

At present, pre-sentencing reports only include the offender's "age, maturity, character, behaviour, attitude and willingness to make amends," as required in the Criminal Code, as well as a report on the offender's previous criminal and rehabilitative history.

What’s the issue? According to the federal prisons watchdog, more than one-in-ten federal inmates reported mental health issues — although there is some data to indicate that number may be significantly higher.

The watchdog has for years recommended new measures to divert offenders with mental health issues away from prisons, and into treatment, given that Correctional Services Canada does not have the capacity or speciality to handle the complex mental health needs of these inmates.

What does C-375 do? The bill is relatively straightforward. It requires that the report include details of “any mental disorder from which the offender suffers as well as any mental health care programs available to them.”

Such a report, the hope is, would encourage the courts to divert those offenders into support programs, as opposed to prison.

Is it going to pass? Since the legislation is a private member’s bill, there’s no guarantee. Private members’ legislation rarely becomes law, though C-375 has already made it further than most, having reached the House justice committee.

If the bill had support from all parties, it may fly through quicker, but it is already facing headwinds. Conservatives in the House of Commons have voiced concerns over its simplicity. Conservative MP Erin O’Toole wonder if “even property crimes or things like that should consider all mental health aspects?”

His colleague, justice critic Michael Cooper, echoed the concerns and wondered whether such reports could further entrench court delays by forcing probation officers to write ever-longer sentencing reports.

The government, however, has backed the bill — but have suggested there is need for amendment. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice Marco Mendicino noted that the bill was, perhaps, too light on detail and told the House of Commons there may be need for clarity.

The bill kicks off study at the justice committee this afternoon, with testimony from Majid Jowhari, who authored it, and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

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