POLITICS

Common misconceptions about the not criminally responsible system

04/19/2013 10:17 EDT | Updated 06/19/2013 05:12 EDT
Addressing common misconceptions about verdicts of not criminally responsible and the review board system:

1. People found not criminally responsible get off scot-free.

It is upsetting to some people, victims in particular, that by nature of the verdict, no one is held responsible for what happened. Our system doesn't punish people for acts for which they are not responsible, but instead tries to rehabilitate them. After an NCR verdict most people are sent to psychiatric hospitals, where they are detained until they are deemed by a provincial review board to no longer be a significant threat to public safety.

2. Even when those found NCR are sent to a hospital, they're let out almost immediately.

Few NCR cases get an absolute discharge at the first hearing, according to a government-commissioned study of review boards in Canada between 1992 and 2004. Even when they are first conditionally released, people found not criminally responsible have conditions placed on their freedom, much like parole or probation. About 35 per cent of people found NCR spend more than 10 years in the system. They tend to spend longer in a psychiatric hospital than they would have in prison for many crimes except murder, which carries a life sentence.

3. The NCR system floods our communities with dangerous people who could snap at any minute.

When those found NCR are conditionally released into the community they are closely monitored. It is only when a panel of experts has concluded the person is not a significant threat that they are absolutely discharged. There are cases in which a person found NCR has committed another crime, either while out conditionally or completely released. But those are rare. Studies submitted to the government show that about 10 per cent of those people reoffend, while the rate for people released from penal custody is about 40 per cent. Mental-health advocates say that for NCR patients, the worse the crime, the lower their future risk tends to be.

4. All murderers could use the NCR defence because anyone who kills another person must be crazy.

The bar for a finding of not criminally responsible is quite high and therefore captures only a small number of people. It's not enough for a person to have a mental disorder at the time of the crime. The Criminal Code states: "No person is criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong." A government-commissioned study found that an average of 0.16 per cent of adult criminal cases are not criminally responsible or unfit to stand trial.