In a scene that could have been pulled from The Silence of the Lambs, seven police officers usher a handcuffed man into a Windsor courtroom.
The man has been made to wear a mesh hood with clear plastic over his face. He has mental health issues and spits when agitated, Ontario court Justice Micheline Rawlins explains to the courtroom in the moments before the man enters. He also smears his feces on the walls when he’s in jail, she adds.
“This is the reality we deal with every day,” said Patricia Brown, a defence lawyer with a mental health practice.
For some people with mental illness, getting arrested is a godsend, Brown says. Now, there will be a psychological assessment and probation officers arranging for counselling and treatment. “Coming before the courts is the first time they’ve been able to access those resources,” Brown said. “That’s where I find joy — being able to connect someone to the supports, the medication they need.”
Ontario court has special sessions called 672 Court where accused people with mental illness have their cases heard while Canadian Mental Health Association workers and other support people are readily available. The name, 672, refers to the section of the Criminal Code that deals with offenders with mental disorders. Mental health court is held every other Friday, but those cases can come up on any day in any courtroom.
Brown said Windsor has made great strides in bringing together police officers, correctional officers, lawyers and judges with health professionals to find ways to best handle offenders with mental illness.
But people who are resistant to treatment will find themselves back before the courts again and again.
“We should not be warehousing people who suffer from mental issues in jail,” Brown said. “We need to put treatment before punishment, but what do you do when someone doesn’t want help?”
The 45-year-old man in the spit mask is a case in point. Lawyers and judges know him well. Against the man’s wishes, the judge on a prior court appearance ordered a psychiatric assessment. The doctor’s report says the man, despite suffering from anti-social personality disorder, is fit to stand trial.
The latest instance that brings the man to court happened two months ago. He went berserk at a Tim Hortons, hurling rocks at cars in the parking lot and drive-thru lane. The hapless victims — a young boy in a car with his uncle and a Tims worker who had just gotten into her car after her shift — were traumatized.
Today, the man pleads guilty and gets released from the courthouse with time served. The police officers remove the mask and the handcuffs. Outside the courtroom, they follow at a distance as the man makes his way downstairs to sign his probation order.
Defence lawyer Dan Topp knows the man well. He has represented him in court when the man has been willing to accept the help.
Topp is often appointed by the court to help in cases involving mentally ill people. He used to do it for free before the province started a formal program to pay for lawyers known as amicus curiae.
“I did it because people need the help. It’s heartwrenching.”
Topp speaks of the revolving door of justice for mentally ill people who commit crimes.
“They fall through the cracks. They get arrested, they get released and they get arrested again. It’s a problem with the criminal justice system. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just the way it is.”
Ontario court Justice Lloyd Dean is one of the three local judges who rotate through the mental health court. Even when that court is not in session, lawyers with mentally ill clients will stickhandle the cases into the courtroom where Dean is presiding.
“I try to fit them in,” Dean says.
Dean says he tries to build rapport with mentally ill offenders, making small talk before dealing with the case. “Sometimes, it’s a matter of talking to them softy and calmly. … Like any human being, they want to know you care about them and you are listening to them.”
Dean says the law requires him, in sentencing, to consider the special circumstances of the offender at the time of the offence.
“Each offender is unique,” Dean says. “Believe me, I am on the lookout for truly evil people, that person I need to separate from society. Thankfully, we don’t have many truly evil people. Most people who come before me are people with some good qualities overtaken by circumstances in their life, circumstances like mental illness.”
Dean has seen offenders brought before him in spit masks, in shackles, surrounded by specially trained tactical officers. There are two who regularly appear in Windsor. Statistics are hard to come by, but Dean estimates that of the 1,500 to 2,000 cases he hears each year, only a handful involve aggressive offenders with mental illness.
When they come to court, they are often on their best behaviour. “They know they have to co-operate with the judge, so a lot of the time they aren’t as challenging for us as they are for authorities who have to bring them to court.”
Mentally ill inmates present “unique challenges” for jails, says Randy Simpraga, president of OPSEU Local 135, representing correctional officers at the South West Detention Centre in Windsor.
Mentally ill offenders often unintentionally provoke other inmates and become victims of assaults. The South West Detention Centre has a mental health unit, but many jails do not, Simpraga said.
“It’s easy for the mentally ill in jails to be forgotten. … We care about these people, we absolutely do, but there’s only so much we can do.”
Simpraga thinks back to Jonathan Algudady, a teenager with a compulsive eating disorder who was jailed for 26 days in 2003 for shoplifting food. “I remember Jonathan’s big brown eyes and thinking he shouldn’t be here. It broke my heart.”
Even today, there are inmates Simpraga knows would not be in jail were it not for their mental illness. He worries about their safety when they are behind bars and community safety when they’re not.
“If you’re sick, you shouldn’t be in jail. You should be getting help.”