A report commissioned by B.C.'s attorney general and public safety minister says the province needs to invest heavily in non-police resources to address the mental health and substance use problems that have led to an increased perception of crime in communities.
The 14-page report makes a series of recommendations — the bulk of which revolve around addressing "critical gaps in the continuum of care for people with mental health and substance use needs who are involved with the criminal justice system."
"Currently, mental health-related crisis response in B.C. is primarily left to police and hospital emergency departments — both of which have been shown to contribute to adverse outcomes for people in crisis," the report says.
"We need a broader and more creative set of solutions."
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Call to stop using term 'prolific offender'
The report was written by former Vancouver deputy police chief Doug LePard and Amanda Butler, an expert on mental health and the criminal justice system,
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and then B.C. attorney general David Eby called for the investigation after the B.C. Urban Mayors Caucus pleaded with Eby for action on what it called the "catch-and-release justice cycle."
LePard and Butler were asked to address concerns about both prolific offenders and "an apparent increase in violent, unprovoked stranger attacks generally believed to be committed by people with mental disorder and substance use." needs.
Among the 28 recommendations, the report includes is an endorsement of a call by the B.C. First Nations Judicial Council for police and the province to stop using the term "prolific offenders" as the report claims "this term not only perpetuates harm and stigma but also fails to address that these individuals lack security and safety."
Instead, the report calls for a series of measures starting with greater provincial investment in civilian-led mental health crisis teams.
The report also recommends the creation of crisis centres offering "access to high-quality mental health and substance use care that accepts walk-ins, as well as people being transported by ambulance, fire and police."
The authors call on the province to staff every provincial court with a dedicated forensic nurse to "support immediate client psychiatric assessments and recommend diversion opportunities in both traditional and specialized court settings."
The report says the province should establish "low secure units" modelled on an approach pioneered in the United Kingdom for people with complex mental health and substance use needs. The initiative would appear to fall short of the mandatory treatment that some advocates for victims of crime have suggested.
"The units would be for people who are not appropriate for forensic care but whose needs exceed the structural design and capacity of an open in-patient hospital unit," the report says.
"These units should be designed to provide intensive rehabilitation as well as social, housing, education, and employment services."
'Everyone deserves to feel safe'
At a news conference, Farnworth said his ministry would be providing more funding for community-based teams to identify vulnerable individuals who may commit criminal offences or experience harm and rapidly connect them to the services they need.
He also announced the return of a successful prolific offender management pilot program that operated in a handful of B.C. communities from 2008 to 2012 to identify and supervise chronic offenders, linking them to services needed to keep them out of trouble.
"Everyone deserves to feel safe in their homes, business and streets everywhere in our province," Farnworth said.
Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran spoke after Farnworth. He said he "welcomed and applauded" the recommendations.
"Change takes time, but change cannot happen without these foundational steps we're announcing today."
Along with an executive summary and the list of recommendations, the province also issued the B.C. First Nations' Justice Council's submission to the panel, which expresses "reservations" about the panel's "ability to build relationships, rebuild trust, reduce harm and break the cycles of structural inequalities that perpetuate harm."
The report itself acknowledges that concern, "there are many voices that are missing from our consultations, namely the voices of Indigenous communities."
Along with the recommendation to abandon the term "prolific offender," the report also includes four more of the council's suggestions, including funding a pilot program in Prince George aimed at lowering recidivism among First Nations people.
The province announced that it will provide funding for the initiative.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart released a statement lauding the panel's recommendations, pointing out the call for civilian-led mental health teams and crisis centres in particular.
"These recommendations would go a long way in providing care to those in need, breaking the cycle of crime caused by repeat offenders, taking the pressure off first responders and ultimately making Vancouver healthier and safer for all," Stewart said.
Surrey Board of Trade president Anita Huberman said the report was in line with recommendations previously made by her organization, but she accused the panel of ignoring the voices of business owners.
"The authors consulted with a variety of stakeholders including police, mayors and city officials, health authorities, Crown Counsel, community agencies, and academics, however, did not reach out to businesses or organizations that represent the business voice," Huberman said in a statement.
"The private sector is greatly impacted by prolific offenders and needed the ability to voice their opinion."