'Miscarriage of justice' prompts calls for mental health court

Don Kushniruk, who was bipolar and possibly schizophrenic, spent 31 months in custody before he was sentenced to seven days in jail.
Donald Kushniruk, shown on the left in a family photo and on the right in a note he carried around with him years later. His family said that his mental health deteriorated swiftly before he committed suicide in custody last year. (Photo illustration. Photos supplied)

The case of an Edmonton man who spent more than two years in custody for a minor crime has prompted calls for Alberta to follow other provinces and set up a mental health court.

Don Kushniruk, a man with no criminal record, was arrested in June 2009 after pulling a knife during a disagreement at a dog park.

The case kept getting delayed. Kushniruk, who was bipolar and possibly schizophrenic, represented himself in court and never asked for bail.  

By the time Kushniruk was sentenced to seven days in jail, he had already served 31 months in jail. Kushniruk was back in the remand centre in May 2013 after arguing with his probation officer. He killed himself two weeks later. 

The case, which CBC revealed in an exclusive story, shocks Dennis Anderson from the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“The criminal justice system has far too many people who are ill as opposed to people who want to commit a crime,” he said.

Both Anderson and Edmonton defence lawyer D'Arcy Depoe say Alberta should set up a mental health court where the focus is on treatment, rather than punishment.

However, Depoe doesn’t believe the province is interested.

“I hear nothing about it,” he said. “There's been no initiative that I'm aware of. Certainly nothing coming from the justice department.”

Justice Minister Jonathan Denis would not make himself available for an interview on the issue.

With files from the CBC's Janice Johnston

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