Madam Speaker, it is indeed an honour and privilege to be able to bring forward legislation that would alter the Criminal Code in accordance with the compassion and common sense priorities of my constituents in Richmond Hill.
In our community, I host regular talks over coffee and make time whenever I can to meet with constituents during office hours. Mental health has and continues to be a top priority in my riding of Richmond Hill. It is why I have worked to support organizations such as Home on the Hill, 360°kids and the Krasman Centre in my riding. It is also why, when I came to Ottawa, I told my constituents that I would focus my energy on advancing the progressive ideals I was elected to uphold and fight for, namely, the advancement of equality for all Canadians and, in particular, those who are marginalized and lack the support they need.
This began with my founding the Liberal mental health caucus, a group of like-minded Liberal members who heard from experts and those with lived experiences, in an effort to identify the gaps in mental health services and what resources could be best spent on in that regard. As part of this effort, my colleague, the member of Parliament for , and I went on a fact-finding mission to Kitchener, Ontario, where we toured the Grand Valley Institution for Women, operated by Correctional Services Canada. We learned that over 20% of the federal offenders have been identified as struggling with mental health problems, often with more than one disorder. Furthermore, the rate of mental illness among federal offenders has almost doubled in the last 20 years.
The correctional investigator's 2012 annual report found that 36% of offenders at federal penitentiaries were identified as requiring psychiatric or psychological follow-up. Forty per cent of male inmates and 69% of female inmates were treated for mental health issues while in prison. Most importantly, it became clear that the deinstitutionalization of mental health services and the closure of psychiatric hospitals, a victory for the compassionate and progressive treatment of individuals with mental health needs, had been replaced with a new form of institutionalization, where individuals with mental health needs find themselves falling through the cracks and being funnelled into a criminal system designed for incarceration and punishment, not treatment or support.
Since then, I have expanded the mental health caucus into the parliamentary mental health caucus, where we have heard testimony from witnesses on the topic of youth suicide. Most recently, we co-hosted many events around mental health at Parliament. However, it was in the early days during our exploratory visit to the penitentiary that inspired the creation of Bill .
Bill is one small step forward in addressing the invisible cost society bears fiscally and socially for our historical inability to provide care, treatment and support for those suffering from mental health concerns. As initially put forward, Bill would amend paragraph 721(3)(a) of the Criminal Code, mandating that unless otherwise specified, when a pre-sentencing report is required by a court, in addition to such information as age, maturity, character, behaviour, attitude and willingness to make amends, information outlining any mental health disorder as well as any mental health care programs available for the accused be provided as part of their pre-sentencing report.
Today, there exists no mandate for courts to consider the mental health history of an individual in pre-sentencing proceedings, yet they are mandated to take into account subjective factors such as attitude or character.
As Bill ensures that pertinent information would be taken into account during pre-sentencing, an individual with a history of mental health issues would be afforded the appropriate care and treatment during the administration of justice and their rehabilitation. Nevertheless, the Probation Officer Association of Ontario has noted that, at least in this jurisdiction, this was already standard practice and that federal legislation would simply codify and expand that across all jurisdictions.
In the long term, the legislation presents an opportunity for us to take a real step forward, decrease recidivism, improve rehabilitation, and further erode the stigmatization of mental illness.
In the short term, there are immediate benefits to the quality of life in our prisons, as well as to the efficacy of the services in the administration of justice and the rehabilitation of vulnerable populations.
In any individual sentencing, our justice system is well served by being made fully aware of relevant mental health concerns. With mental health information included in a presentence report, the interplay of mental health and the condition of incarceration can be taken fully into account. Readily available mental health information is invaluable when considering a step as drastic as solitary confinement or choosing the facility that can best provide the appropriate mental health services.
By ensuring that mental health concerns are considered in these decisions, we can reduce the strain on penitentiary security officers while creating an environment that mitigates inflammatory factors and encourages conditions that reduce recidivism in the long term. This can be particularly useful in crafting cases of conditional sentencing as well as in creating conditions for effective reintegration following release.
During committee testimony, a representative of the John Howard Society of Canada brought up an interesting example of where this context would matter even outside of incarceration. The representative noted that there are mental health issues that can predispose an individual to committing breaches due to their inability to appropriately understand the causality surrounding their behaviour. For instance, this issue would be relevant context when considering a probation order or other forms of custodial penalties that the individual may or may not be able to discharge without committing further infractions.
It is also my understanding that ensuring relevant mental health information is available at every step of the process would also make cases less vulnerable to attack on appeal, saving time and money for our judicial system and providing a net benefit in terms of the overall cost and burden associated with mental health issues.
Following its stint at committee, Bill was returned to the House with some amendments. Principally, these changes would do the following: First, alter the terminology by replacing “mental health disorder” with “mental health condition”, therefore replacing the word “disorder” with the “word condition”. Second, they require that the mental health information be relevant for sentencing purposes, so relevancy was introduced in the bill. Finally, they replaced the term “mental health care program” with “mental health services or supports”; hence, replacing the words “care program” with “services or supports”.
I am pleased with these amendments, which I feel would strengthen the core of my legislation. One of the realities of putting forward a private member's bill is that one tries to craft legislation that will find sufficient consensus to be made into law. That can make the legislation cautious in its approach.
The other fear I expect all members have is that their legislation will return from committee weakened or watered down, which is why I am so pleased that these amendments are a positive step forward.
The first and third amendments I mentioned, which alter the language of the bill, actually widen its scope, covering a wider array of mental health conditions as well as services available for the offender.
During committee, there were examples given of situations where a mental health condition could be entirely separate from the judicial consideration at play and by including it, one would be party to an unnecessary and inconsiderable breach of the offender's privacy.
The second amendment ensures that there is a clear connection between the mental health condition disclosed and the judicial consideration at hand. I appreciate that this amendment actually tightens my proposed legislation to the causality between an offender's mental health condition and the judicial situation.
As I said when the bill came before the committee, the relationship between mental health care and our criminal justice system is dynamic and evolving. This complex situation must be addressed by more than a single private member's bill, and I certainly would not frame Bill as a be-all solution. However, it is a strong step forward that would have a real-world impact on the lives of one or more Canadians, while saving the valuable time of our judicial system and money.
I would like to take a quick moment to acknowledge of the work of Mr. Glenn Bradbury, who was instrumental in working with me in drafting the legislation. I would also like to thank those experts and colleagues who have advised me along the way. Indeed, it has been a long road.