Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime government complains loudly and often about young offenders. “The principles of deterrence and punishment have been all but erased from the youth criminal justice system,” Harper beefed last week in a speech. So let’s hope he doesn’t hear about Ottawa’s new youth mental health court. As the first court of its kind in Canada, it dispenses treatment and compassion—not jail time—to Ottawa’s most troubled teens.
An estimated 20 per cent of all young offenders suffer from serious diagnosable mental illnesses. While adults can be streamed into specialized mental health courts in several provinces, youth lack this resource. Thus minors suffering from mental illness often end up in detention rather than treatment, unnecessarily criminalizing their problems.
Tania Breton, a justice outreach worker with the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa, was dissatisfied with this situation and decided to start sending her charges to adult mental health court for help. That got the attention of local Crown attorney Hilary McCormack, and led to the creation of the youth mental health court in May. The low-key court meets once a month and includes a dedicated judge, Crown and defence attorney as well as a psychiatrist and other support workers. As a resolution court, it hands out individualized treatment programs rather than sentences.
“We have an opportunity to make the court experience a much more therapeutic one,” says Breton, citing a recent case in which an autistic youth who assaulted his parents spent just four days in detention and received specialized treatment immediately after his case was heard. Had he wended his way through regular youth court, the process would have taken far longer and lacked the individual attention, as well as the additional supports offered to his parents. “These are the kids you want to help as much as possible,” says Breton with some pride. “My hope is that we’ll see many more of these courts.” M
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