The Criminalization of Mental Illness

In last Sunday’s New York Times, one of the opinion columns was entitled, “Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail”.

Reading this article Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail I was reminded of how closely the Canadian experience mirrors that of our American friends.

In my time practicing criminal law in British Columbia, we have seen a steady erosion of services available to those who are most vulnerable. Various of our Provincial Governments have consistently closed facilities which operated to house and care for those with serious mental health problems. The result of this misguided policy has been replace health care workers with police officers as the point of contact for those who are ill. The results have sometimes been tragic, with people dying at the hands of police or seriously harming others while their illness goes untreated.

The rationale behind the closing of mental health facilities has been said to be that the patients would be better cared for in the community. If housing and resources were made available, this may well be true. The reality is that the mentally ill are often invisible. They are easily marginalized. And they may also suffer from serious addiction issues. The end result of this is the Mental Hospital called Jail.

Take a trip to any Provincial Court in the Lower Mainland and you will see a seemingly endless stream of people charged with mostly minor offences which can be directly related to their mental health issues. Often these crimes may involve their attempts to self-medicate with street drugs. What follows is the revolving door of petty crime such as shoplifting and drug possession and increasingly long periods in jail.

The cynical view may suggest that the Province viewed this simply as an easy way to off-load expenses onto municipalities. The province pays for health care, the hospitals and doctors to manage those with serious mental illness, while the cities pay for policing. As taxpayers, we are paying either way. But we do have a strong interest in society looking after those of us who are unable to care for ourselves. And as pointed out in the Times, it is far cheaper to help people than to imprison them.