North

Advocates say N.W.T. justice system needs to rehabilitate, not incarcerate, vulnerable offenders

As the Government of Canada reviews the country's criminal justice system, advocates from the Northwest Territories are saying the territory incarcerates people with addictions, disabilities and poor mental health when it should be offering them treatment.

Government of Canada seeking public comment on criminal justice system until Jan. 15

Advocates within the Northwest Territories' criminal justice system say that the Northwest Territories needs to focus on helping fix the underlying problems that can cause criminal activity, rather than on punishment. (Walter Strong/CBC)

As the Government of Canada prepares to wrap up public consultation in its review of the country's criminal justice system, advocates from the Northwest Territories are saying the territory's system incarcerates people with addictions, disabilities and poor mental health when it should be offering them treatment.

For over a year, the federal government has been promising changes to Canada's criminal justice system "to promote a safe, peaceful and prosperous society." The review is focusing on issues such as delays in the court system, better support for victims of crime and decreasing the number of marginalized and vulnerable people in jail.

The government is seeking comments from the public until Jan. 15, 2018.

According to Peter Harte, a Yellowknife-based criminal lawyer, the latter issue is a problem in the N.W.T. He said the justice system needs to focus on fixing underlying issues for vulnerable people, not punishing them after the fact.

'The justice system, as it is currently set up, focuses on punishing people for misconduct and not treating problems like addiction and trauma,' says Peter Harte, a Yellowknife lawyer. (CBC)
"People end up in conflict with the law as a result of trauma and addictions issues," he said. "And the justice system, as it is currently set up, focuses on punishing people for misconduct and not treating problems like addiction and trauma."

Harte suggests one thing the justice system can do is send people to treatment facilities instead of jail. He says the way to help people who have experienced trauma is through therapy with a psychologist, addictions counselling and anger management classes.

"If a child saw his mother murdered [and ended up committing a crime] how on earth would you expect putting somebody in jail is going to have a therapeutic effect?" said Harte. "It just is inconceivable that jail is going to be a response for that kind of horror for that individual."

'We should never criminalize mental illness'

Lydia Bardak, a longtime community advocate in Yellowknife, says that it's up to the territory's Department of Health and Social Services to prevent the incarceration of vulnerable people by providing them therapeutic services before they commit a crime.

"These individuals should have never been criminalized in the first place and we should never criminalize mental illness, we should never criminalize disability," she said.

Community advocate Lydia Bardak says that the territory's Department of Health and Social Services needs to do more to prevent incarceration by providing therapeutic services: 'we should never criminalize mental illness, we should never criminalize disability.' (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)
"[The justice system uses] the after-the-harm-is-done response. This is back end responding, rather than front end responding."

Bardak said another problem in the N.W.T. is delays in the court system, despite the fact that it has some of the fastest moving courts in the country in terms of processing time and how quickly trials take place.  

"It means victims of crime are waiting a long time for resolution and it makes it hard for them to go through healing and move forward," she said.

Harte said that the justice system would benefit from adopting a therapeutic approach, because it would give them more time and resources to focus on deliberate offenders, who really need incarceration.

The Government of Canada has said they will release the results of their review in the winter of 2018.