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Mental health and addictions

Those suffering from mental illness and addictions are overrepresented in the Criminal Justice System. Often these individuals face other issues that make them more vulnerable, such as poverty, or previous trauma. There are many supports including health and social services that could help people effectively deal with mental health and/or addiction issues while they are in the system. We need to better understand what supports, preventive and alternative measures, and therapeutic approaches individuals with mental health challenges and/or addiction need. How can social supports better work with the Criminal Justice System to help these individuals?


This is a story from real people, told in their own words.

It contains information about themes that may be difficult for some audiences.

Marie-Eve Sylvestre, Full Professor, Faculty of Law (Civil Law Section), University of Ottawa

It’s true to say that people who suffer from mental health issues or alcohol and drug use issues are over-represented in our criminal justice system.

For example, we’ll sometimes hear that up to 80% of individuals incarcerated in federal penitentiaries have a drug or alcohol dependence problem; and up to 40% of inmates have one or more specific mental health issues.

1 in 3 Canadians will have mental or substance use disorders at some point in their life.

It is estimated that mental health issues are two to three times more common in prison.

Marie-Eve Sylvestre

I think that if you were to show up in a courtroom at the nearest courthouse on any given Monday morning, you’d see a whole faction of essentially poor individuals, many of them in situations of homelessness, many of them not working, or at least with no education, with drug or alcohol use issues and, in some cases, mental health issues, coming to plead guilty to a litany of extremely minor infractions, oftentimes non-violent acts.

Many of their behaviours, which are essentially ways to survive on the streets, will be criminalized.

So it’s the criminal justice system that is stuck with these problems, and it uses the tools we have given it – tools that criminalize a whole series of behaviours, where we use repression and punishment rather than prevention, treatment and service.

In 2012, 34% of Canadians with mental health or substance use problems came in contact with police, twice as many as those without these problems.

Marie-Eve Sylvestre

The justice system is the system that, by default, needs to take on social issues we don’t want to see, or the issues we don’t invest enough in as a society.

When a person in incarcerated, the institutions are often not equipped to offer services. Individuals are detained in overpopulated facilities, and they are placed there on a temporary basis. At the moment, in provincial correctional centres, there are more people there awaiting trial than people who have been sentenced. So if you’re there temporarily, you don’t have access to long-term therapy or treatment services. You don’t have access to sterile injection equipment and you might contract an infectious disease. Or you suffer from mental health issues, you don’t have access to services while you’re being detained – or worse, because you suffer from mental health issues, you’ll be detained in more severe and more restrictive conditions. You’ll be placed in isolation because we’re afraid for your safety or for the safety of others, in an environment where you might develop suicidal tendencies. You might become even more frustrated, your mental health issues might get worse, etc.

I think the system is stuck in a vicious circle. They’ve been repeating the same practices for years and I often hear different members of the judicial system tell me, “He didn’t understand this time, but next time, I’ll give him more detention time or a harsher sentence.” We call this an escalation of penalties. So, we’ll do the same thing, but with more intensity and we tell ourselves the person will understand. We tell ourselves that he or she will be dissuaded, that he or she will return to the right path, when it hasn’t worked the first time, when it probably won’t work the second time. I think the system is stuck in a vicious circle, in these old, well-established practices that are repeated without asking too many questions and without necessarily having a complete view of the situation. We’re not necessarily aware of the magnitude of criminalizing poverty, because we’re constantly trying to fix social issues without necessarily having the tools to do so.

What do I think of the criminal justice system? I think it’s costly, counterproductive, and it often infringes on the rights of individuals. Despite its good intentions, it doesn’t succeed in resolving social issues because that’s not necessarily its mission, it’s not necessarily the objective it set for itself. I don’t think these individuals should be in prison. I don’t think these individuals should be in the justice system. Incarceration, detention, is very traumatizing and stigmatizing, and I think it only makes the situation worse rather than supporting those who are suffering.