P.E.I. justice minister describes 'great first step' toward therapeutic court

A new type of court system for Prince Edward Island, talked about for a decade, would focus on treatment rather than punishment.

Addictions and mental health issues on rise, says Bloyce Thompson

Justice Minister Bloyce Thompson says the P.E.I. government is 'exploring the options of therapeutic courts, where we can maybe avoid incarcerations.' (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

P.E.I.'s Justice Minister Bloyce Thompson says the province has taken a "great first step" toward establishing a system for some offenders that would focus on treating their mental health and addictions issues rather than putting them in jail.

The province has been talking about the possibility of establishing a therapeutic mental health court going back at least as far as 2012, when government issued a request for proposals for a research project to outline what such a system could look like.

Thompson raised the possibility of establishing a therapeutic court in response to concerns from the opposition about rapidly increasing incarceration rates for women in the province.

"Addictions and mental health [problems] are on the increase across not only Prince Edward Island but across the country," said Thompson. "We really have to focus on an upstream approach, a therapeutic approach. And that's why we are exploring the options of therapeutic courts, where we can maybe avoid incarcerations."

Thompson said senior staff in his department are exploring the possibility, "and early conversations with the chief judge indicate that there is an interest in it. So it's a great first step."

Thompson wouldn't provide a timeline for when he'd like to see a program move forward, but said "the premier and I have had this discussion and … [the] therapeutic approach is the kind of way our government wants to head."

Traditional system 'not well equipped'

In other provinces, such courts divert some offenders outside the criminal justice system requiring them to undergo treatment and rehabilitation.

Nova Scotia's first mental health court in Dartmouth — since renamed wellness court to avoid the stigma associated with mental illness — was established in 2009.

Similar courts have since been created in multiple locations across the province, including Amherst, Port Hawkesbury and Wagmatcook First Nation.

The specialty court established in 2018 at Wagmatcook First Nation in Nova Scotia combines provincial court services, an Aboriginal Wellness court and Gladue court. (Len Wagg/Government of Nova Scotia)

A 2019 review involving the school of health at Dalhousie University concluded "the traditional criminal justice system is not well equipped to address the complex needs of individuals living with mental illness and substance use."

The review cited the wellness court program as "a commendable shift in the criminal justice system and the promising outcomes indicate a potential for reflecting on aspects that can be feasibly integrated into traditional court settings."

To be admitted into Nova Scotia's wellness court, offenders must accept responsibility for their actions, and be diagnosed with a mental illness related to their offence.

A 2014 report found that 86 per cent of the 232 people admitted to the program at that point had completed their course of treatment.

P.E.I. jail is over capacity

While any therapeutic court on P.E.I. would presumably accept anyone, the topic came up recently after the Official Opposition raised concerns about the increasing number of women spending time in P.E.I.'s provincial correctional facility.

According to briefing notes obtained by the Official Opposition, the number of bed days for female inmates increased by 170 per cent over four years — from 2,277 in 2015-16 to 6,159 in 2019-20.

The figure for 2019-20 is more than four times the facility's stated annual capacity for female inmates, which is 1,460 bed days. A new 35-bed wing for female inmates is expected to be completed next year.

"I don't think women have suddenly become more criminal over the past few years, so what's changed?" asked Steve Howard, MLA for Summerside-South Drive during question period Friday. 

"I can only assume that these statistics are alarming enough for you and your department to be researching the underlying causes."

Thompson said one factor was an increase in cases dealing with mental health and addictions.

"We have to do more, we have to look at our programs and it's all about community wellbeing," Thompson said.

"The women offenders need our full support so we don't have to incarcerate women. We have to take a different approach, we have to take a leadership role in this and the Department of Justice and Public Safety is willing to do that."

More from CBC P.E.I. 


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.


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