The government's proposed changes to laws dealing with those found not criminally responsible for alleged crimes will fuel a stigma and teach Canadians to be afraid of people living with mental illness, advocates said Tuesday.

Representatives from national mental health organizations were on Parliament Hill to voice their concerns with Bill C-54. The news conference tied in with Mental Health Week in Canada.

Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, said the coalition of groups supports the measures in the bill designed to support victims of crime, but the rest of it is flawed.

"We understand the need to protect Canadians from individuals who commit violent crimes however, this bill as it is currently written will not do this," he said. "What this bill has done is to tell Canadians that they should be afraid of people living with mental illness. Fearing people living with mental illness will only set us back."

The proposed not criminally responsible (NCR) reform act seeks to create a new "high-risk offender" designation for those who have been declared NCR because of mental illness. The high-risk designation would be given by the courts, not the existing review boards that currently determine the timing of an accused's release and his or her supervision afterwards.

High-risk offenders could not be discharged until a court agrees to lift the designation; they would not be eligible for unescorted passes into the community and could have their mandatory review period extended from one year up to three years.

Groups want to amend bill

The bill also aims to give victims of crimes a greater role by providing them with notification upon a person's release, if it is requested. Those found by a court to be NCR are neither convicted nor acquitted. They are kept at mental health facilities until the review board determines they can be released, sometimes with strict conditions.

The government argues the legislation will keep dangerous people in custody and address the concerns of victims.

But the mental health advocates say the legislation won't help reduce crime and that more support for victims shouldn't have to come at the expense of the rights of people with mental illness.

"This is not an issue of give or take but rather one of working together," said Dr. Paul Fedoroff, a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Psychiatric Association and president of the Canadian Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Fedoroff said mental health groups were not consulted during the drafting of this bill and they have not been able to get a meeting with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson directly, only his staff. He said they want to work with the government to try and amend the bill so it more fairly deals with people with mental illness.

'All the progress we've made is now being undermined.'—Peter Coleridge, CEO, Canadian Mental Health Association

A proposal to prevent people from leaving hospital grounds, for example, does not contribute to treatment and recovery or the preparation of people for reintegration once they are released, the advocates said.

They said the language in the bill demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about people living with mental illness. They are also concerned about the wider implications the measures could have.  

"It's not just the group of people affected by the bill, it has broader ripple effects," said Peter Coleridge, national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association. "There is language in the bill that provide labels that fuel stigma."

"All the progress we've made is now being undermined," said Coleridge.

Summerville said language is important and that he doesn't consider people deemed NCR as "criminals."

"They did not do what they did with a criminal mind. It was mental illness," he said.

The review boards already take into consideration the need to protect the public when deciding if an accused found not criminally responsible is ready for release, and balances that with other factors including the mental condition of the accused, the reintegration of the accused into society and the other needs of the accused.

The government wants public safety to be the paramount concern, placing a priority on the severity of the crime, and for victims' needs to be considered and is changing the current legislation to reflect those priorities.

The groups at Tuesday's news conference are concerned the government is trying to correct a problem that doesn't exist and that the changes are not evidence-based.

Criminal justice groups consulted

Low recidivism rates among those deemed not criminally responsible who are later released show that the review board system is working properly, they said.

"Mental illnesses are treatable, we have the best science today to do that and furthermore recovery is possible," said Summerville.

The advocates are also worried that some lawyers may advise clients not to pursue an NCR defence because the penalties and conditions may be less strict in the regular justice system, which would result in people with mental illness being diverted to jails instead of hospitals.

A spokeswoman for Nicholson was asked to address the concern about stigma. Julie Di Mambro responded in an email by quoting Prime Minister Stephen Harper who said: "When atrocious events do occur and the state fails to act, fails to do all it can do to defend innocent citizens, it violates the inherent trust upon which its existence is justified."

Di Mambro also wrote that the bill's measures are responsible and carefully crafted and "are designed to apply to the most dangerous and egregious of cases."

She also said that the provinces and organizations specializing in the criminal justice system were consulted about the bill.

The government says these measures will only apply to a small number of people and only in cases of serious personal injury but that they are necessary to ensure public safety.