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The province marked an anniversary in Dartmouth this week of an innovative approach to justice that has worked so well it’s spreading throughout Nova Scotia.
It’s been 10 years since the Mental Health Court was established in the Pleasant Street courthouse in Dartmouth. It grew out of a realization that the regular court system did not deal well with the mentally ill or people with substance abuse problems.
Standard criminal courts depend on an adversarial process, pitting a defendant who may not be able to afford a lawyer or who may not even understand the proceedings against government-employed Crown attorneys and judges.
Simply put, judges needed better options than to simply incarcerate mentally ill defendants. Throwing someone who needs support into jail doesn’t help anyone, whether it’s the victim, perpetrator or society itself. Jails don’t have the resources to treat the mentally ill.
Justice system participants recognized that perhaps we’d all be better off if an offender who admits he has a problem got help instead of being punished.
So if offenders have a mental disorder or a substance abuse or gambling problem and their offence can be connected to that problem, they can be directed toward a mental health court. They must admit responsibility for the offence and be willing to work with a court team to address the problem.
If the offender doesn’t co-operate or quits the program, the case ends up back in provincial court. If the offender completes the program, he or she might not end up with a criminal record.
As the court developed its model, spinoff programs tackling alcoholism and opioid abuse have played a role in many cases.
“By connecting people to important supports and services like housing and drug treatment, we are enabling them to take responsibility for their actions and helping to put them on a path to wellness and long-term success,” Pamela Williams, the province’s chief provincial court judge, said in a news release.
Now known as a Wellness Court, the model pioneered in Dartmouth has expanded to similar courts in Amherst, Kentville, Port Hawkesbury and Wagmatcook. The Department of Justice is developing programs in Truro and Bridgewater, too.
By being open to a non-adversarial approach, those behind these new courts have resolved hundreds of cases, reducing court costs and burdens on the justice system and most importantly, making a difference in hundreds of lives.