'Not criminally responsible' bill before Commons

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The Conservatives moved to cap debate in the Commons Monday on a bill that aims to make it more difficult for offenders deemed “not criminally responsible” to receive early release from mental health institutions.

The legislation, Bill C-54, would allow some to be deemed “high risk” detained for longer periods.

The bill also stipulates public safety should be the “paramount consideration” for review boards which look at the release of offenders, even though this is already among existing considerations.

“Victims are concerned that their safety is not being specifically taken into consideration by review boards when they make a disposition,” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said.

The bill arises from recent high-profile cases, such as that of Guy Turcotte, the Quebec doctor who stabbed his 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter to death amid a crumbling marriage in February 2009.

A jury found him not criminally responsible for the killings, but Turcotte has since been released from psychiatric hospital despite the fact that he still poses “a significant risk to public safety.”

But critics argue the Criminal Code’s mental disorder applications apply to a very small percentage of accused persons and that the legislation criminalizes the mentally ill.

The Canadian Alliance on Mental illness and Mental Health — an alliance of mental health organizations — wrote Nicholson in February to suggest the bill perpetuates the myth “people with mental illnesses are violent.”

“People who are found not criminally responsible stay, on average, far longer in hospital than convicted offenders do in prison,” the network said in its letter.