Research examines successes and challenges of the mentally ill in our court system

By Costa Maragos Posted: April 25, 2016 10:00 a.m.

Dr. Michelle Stewart (l), associate professor in Justice Studies with Brittany Mario, graduate student.
Dr. Michelle Stewart (l), associate professor in Justice Studies with Brittany Mario, graduate student. Photo by Trevor Hopkin - U of R Photography.

A University of Regina research team is shining a light on how the justice system deals with people who have serious mental illnesses.

The research examines the progress and challenges faced by the Mental Health Disposition Court, established by Regina Provincial Court in 2013.

This unique court convenes every two weeks to hear cases involving individuals with complex mental health issues and/or cognitive impairments. The therapeutic court is one of two in the province, with the other being in Saskatoon.  

The goal is to keep these individuals out of jail when possible.
The research was conducted by Dr. Michelle Stewart, associate professor in the U of R’s Justice Studies Department, Brittany Mario, graduate student and co-investigator and a team of undergraduate students.

“There is a disproportionate number of people with serious mental illness and cognitive disabilities, like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, being housed in our justice system,” says Stewart. “The two mental health courts in Saskatchewan are necessary steps towards bringing about better justice outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our province.”

The 88-page report cites some disturbing numbers relating to the incarceration of people with mental illness. The report states, research has indicated that “30 per cent of (police) calls for service involves someone with a mental illness and “further down the line in the justice system, prison research indicated 15 – 20 per cent of the population might be living with serious mental illness.”

Research shows the court has achieved some success in diverting individuals out of correctional facilities.

To date, five people have been sentenced to jail time. This is noteworthy as all individuals in this court are facing jail time as criteria for entry.

Since November 2013, the court has seen 79 individuals of which 36 cases have concluded, with the majority resulting community-based disposition.

The therapeutic court relies on a collaborative case management model.  

"The strength of this court is the many agencies and government departments who come to the table to help," says Judge Clifford Toth, who founded the court in 2013 and was the presiding judge for the first two years.

The U of R research says the court is “producing positive outcomes” thanks to the overall support of the stakeholders.

“The study showed that stakeholders believe the court is successful because of the collaborative approach with attention to anchoring participants in community supports,” says Brittany Mario, who was a co-investigator on the project. 

However, even with the initial successes, the research provides recommendations to improve the system.

The report states that more financial resources are needed to support the court including the hiring of a fulltime psychologist, coordinator and dedicated legal aid.

The research also points to the critical need of affordable, supported housing in the city alongside other services required to assist people with mental health challenges.

Additional costs, the report states, could be shared among government agencies.

While Stewart acknowledges all this adds additional strain to already stretched budgets, the money spent upfront means savings in the long run.

“Many of the people who come through this special court proceeding require life-long supports,” says Stewart. “Those supports are best delivered in the community, not by the justice system. But the court requires further support to move forward.”

The research project is titled “Confronting the Challenge: Community Supports, Stability and the Role of the Mental Health Disposition Court” and was funded by the University of Regina’s Partnership Research Grant. The partnership included the Ministry of Justice, the Provincial Courts and the Regina Community Clinic.

The independent study was released on April 14, 2016 with a presentation to stakeholders and media.

To access the full report please visit here.

To learn about how the Regina Mental Health Disposition Court works - who it is for and who it is not for please visit here.