People with intellectual disabilities 'need compassion'

Dozens of people gathered for demonstrations in Truro and downtown Halifax Sunday afternoon in support of people with mental challenges in the criminal justice system.

Incarceration not the answer for people with mental disabilities facing charges, say protesters

About 100 people marched in Truro Sunday. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Dozens of people gathered for demonstrations in Truro and downtown Halifax on Sunday afternoon in support of people with mental challenges in the criminal justice system.

People walked in support of those with intellectual disabilities, whom protesters say are not treated fairly by the justice system — particularly for behaviour they have trouble controlling which leads them to be charged and incarcerated.

In Truro, about 100 protesters walked from the Atlantic Superstore to the Truro Justice Centre. They're asking for a meeting with federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Premier Stephen McNeil to discuss how the justice system treats those with intellectual disabilities.

They want an amendment to the law to protect people with intellectual disabilities.

One of the people marching in Truro was Victor Murphy. He was there to support his daughter Amanda. He said his 34-year-old daughter has the mental capacity of someone between the ages of five and eight years old.

"She has bipolar, epilepsy, she's mentally challenged. Even though she's 34 years old she has the capacity of a five to eight-year-old. She's had different bouts with the law," said Murphy.

"There has to be a better way to deal with the mentally challenged and I think more training although I might ruffle a few feathers here I think there needs to be more training done to deal with different situations that arise in these group homes."

Amanda Murphy is scheduled to be sentenced in an Antigonish courtroom this week after allegedly shoving a health-care worker at the facility where she lives.

Not an isolated case

Murphy's story is not an isolated case.

Nichele Benn is a 26-year-old Nova Scotian woman, born with a brain disorder. She's prone to violent outbursts and has been institutionalized at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre — just outside of Halifax.

In the past six years, her behaviour has resulted in numerous visits by police. She has spent time in jail and is currently on probation. Just before Christmas, she was charged with assault and assault with a weapon.

Her mother, Brenda Hardiman, believes Benn is not a criminal and that she's not responsible for her actions.

"We're very thankful for the turnout. It humbles us, it really does and it just should bring awareness and humble our leaders to look at how they're dealing with people with special needs and people with intellectual disabilities that it's not criminal action that is necessary, it's just compassion. They need compassion and a different treatment plan, not incarceration," said Hardiman.

Yvette Cherry led the protest through downtown Halifax from the Superstore on Barrington Street to the steps of the Provincial Supreme Court. She has a son with an intellectual disability.

"We're not talking about criminal behaviour here, we're talking about behaviour that is largely a result of either self-defence, it may be due to frustration or lack of understanding of the circumstances. these are minor infractions, these are not criminal acts," said Cherry.