POLITICS

Risks low that offenders deemed not criminally responsible will offend again: experts

03/02/2015 06:39 EST | Updated 05/02/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - On the face of it, the decision seems troubling.

Late Friday the news broke that the Manitoba Criminal Code Review Board will allow more freedoms to a man who shocked the country in the summer of 2008 when he beheaded a fellow passenger on a cross-country bus trip.

Critics — including a federal cabinet minister and the dead man's mother — quickly stepped forward to question a system that seems on a path towards letting Vince Li eventually move into a group home in Winnipeg and before then to go into the city on unescorted outings.

But experts say Li, a schizophrenic who was psychotic at the time of the event, poses a low risk of reoffending. And they say he will be so closely monitored that should his mental health again deteriorate, it will be quickly detected and actions will be taken to rein in his freedoms.

"I would guestimate that he will be probably one of the most monitored people in Canada, because of the high profile nature of the incident," says Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada.

Summerville, who is based in Winnipeg, has worked with Li. He says the 46-year old has done well in care at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre. Li's psychiatrist, Dr. Steven Kremer, told the review board recently that Li had not had hallucinations in over a year.

On Friday, the review board ruled Li could transfer to a psychiatric centre at a Winnipeg hospital and will be allowed unsupervised visits to the Manitoba capital as long as he carries a cellphone.

"I wish that every person that I work with that has schizophrenia was doing as well as Mr. Li is doing," says Summerville.

"He's not at a high risk. They do not let people out who are high risk."

The "they" in Summerville's statement are the members of review boards — in this case Manitoba's — which control the confinement and care of people who are deemed "not criminally responsible" because of the state of their mental health when they have committed a crime.

Li received an NCR designation after he killed Tim McLean, 22, on a Greyhound bus. Li said he heard the voice of God instructing him to kill McLean, and repeatedly stabbed and mutilated the young carnival worker, who was travelling home to Manitoba at the time.

Dr. Alexander Simpson is the chief of forensic psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a University of Toronto teaching hospital. He had no involvement in Li's case, and doesn't want to speak about it directly.

"Obviously his type of case is absolutely within my area of work. But I don't know enough about him to be able to comment appropriately about his situation in particular," he says.

But Simpson says in general the recidivism rate — the likelihood that offenders will re-offend — for people who are under NCR orders is low. In fact, people held under an NCR are five times less likely to commit a later crime than people who are sent to prison for crimes and are released after they serve their time.

That's because people under an NCR order receive the appropriate medical care and supervision, he says. Unlike the penal system, where people serve a set sentence, in the NCR system people only attain more freedoms when their doctors and their review board are convinced that they mentally fit and not a threat to the public.

"In the forensic system and the forensic hospital review board system ... you only progress according to your clinical progress and safety," Simpson says.

Simpson says a Canadian research effort known as the national trajectory project found that people who go through the prison system have a 40 per cent chance of re-offending within three years of release. But for people who go through the NCR system, the rate is seven to nine per cent, he says.

People who are under NCR orders generally commit less serious crimes if they do re-offend — things like public disturbances, Simpson says. "Homicide recidivism for instance is incredibly rare."

When people under an NCR order run afoul of the law, the loosened bounds of the system quickly tighten again, Simpson says.

"People are obviously very attuned to what's gone on in the past and are leaping in as early as possible to prevent further deterioration," he says.

Summerville agrees. "Your chances are greater of being struck by lightning than being killed by an NCR person."

Getting people with certain mental health conditions — schizophrenia among them — to religiously take their medication can be a problem. But Simpson says people who have committed a serious crime while in the grips of psychosis are often so horrified by their actions that they are highly motivated to follow a mandated medical regimen.

"The fact that they've harmed somebody seriously or killed somebody and caused other people grave suffering is a thing they can feel immensely bad about and is then a motivator for changing one's life. And those are issues we work on with people very much."

Simpson also notes that people with schizophrenia who suffer relapses don't devolve from being well enough to merit day passes to being a threat to those around them in a short period of time. People who are deemed to be a significant and immediate risk would not qualify for unescorted day passes, he says.