Will tighter laws for those found ‘not criminally responsible’ help everyone?

Matthew Coutts
National Affairs Reporter
Daily Brew

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has released details of a new proposal on how to handle those accused of a crime and found not criminally responsible, which has been touted as part of his government’s crackdown on crime.

The Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act would recast how those suffering from mental illness will be treated by the judicial system. One on hand, those changes seem pointed. On the other, they may provide the justice system with a more accurate tool.

With an inquiry ongoing in the death of Ashley Smith, a troubled teen who killed herself while in custody, it seems like a controversial time to be toughening laws surrounding mental illness and the justice system.

But there is a chance that more pronounced guidelines, more attention, could help the next Smith.

[ Related: 'High-risk' category will keep mentally ill offenders under wraps ]

"We can create a system that is reasonable," Harper said, per the Winnipeg Free Press. "We believe profoundly that in the past several decades the criminal justice system became unbalanced in a way that was really inexcusable."

According to a press release from the Prime Minister's Office, the proposed legislation has three main components.

First, it would underline the importance of public safety when deciding when to release those found not criminally responsible (NCR).

Second, it would create a new designation for high-risk NCR, designed to make it harder for such accused to be released from custody.

The outline reads:

Upon being designated by a court as high-risk, an NCR accused must be held in custody and cannot be considered for release by a review board until their designation is revoked by a court.

Finally, the new legislation would ensure victims of NRC accused are kept aware of that person's status and possible release.

There have been several high-profile cases that might have be treated differently under this proposed legislation. The gory case of Vincent Li is high among them.

[ Related: Insight into mind of Richard Kachkar, snowplow murder suspect ]

In 2008, Li killed 22-year-old Tim McLean on a Grey Hound bus travelling between Edmonton and Winnipeg. Li was found not criminally responsible for the slaughter and remains in custody at a Manitoba health centre. He is, however, allowed out on day passes.

Under the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act it is possible. Li might have been denied those day passes. McLean’s mother, who is campaigning for law reform, would surely prefer it that way.

But the real key to such legislation is not in its breadth, but in its focus.

The Ashley Smith inquiry underlines that there are issues with how those will mental illness are treated in the judicial system. Harper's new legislation would slice those most in need of oversight from those in desperate need of care.

One would hope that by designating some NRC accuses as high risk, and treating them as such, those who do not fit that billing would also receive more appropriate attention.

In other words, the fishing net has been cast too wide.

The Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act could replace that net with precision harpoon guns. Or at least, that would be the plan.