The Conservatives voted down this week all 88 amendments proposed by the opposition parties on Bill C-10, including one by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler that would have allowed judges to take into consideration mental illness when handing down new mandatory minimum sentences.
The Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers told MPs who were studying the bill this fall that if they only made one change to the bill, it should be to recognize people with mental illnesses need treatment before they are put in jail.
Other groups such as the Canadian Pediatric Society have also raised the issue with the government with respect to young offenders, who can sometimes be tried as adults for serious crimes and be handed mandatory minimum sentences. Statistics suggest 70 per cent of young offenders suffer from some form of mental illness.
The Conservatives have been under attack this week by the opposition for rushing through passage of the large omnibus bill, and not taking the time to seriously consider amendments.
Another set of changes proposed by Cotler on the right of Canadian victims to sue terrorist organizations and their state sponsors was first rejected by the Tories, but then proposed by the government at the eleventh hour.
Asked whether the government would consider separate legislation to deal with mental illness and sentencing, or how it would address the mentally ill under C-10, Nicholson referred only to treatment programs the provinces offer.
"We work with our provincial counterparts who have the first responsibility with respect to health care and getting assistance," Nicholson said. "I've been certainly one of those who has encouraged that."
Cotler's amendment, which echoed one proposed by the defence lawyers, would have allowed a judge to delay a mandatory minimum sentence to allow a convicted criminal to get mental health treatment.
The government had already included a similar clause for drug addiction.
"I don't understand again why the government is just rejecting out of hand all amendments which can only be better for the criminal justice system and this is a perfect amendment," said Cotler.
"Why not do the right thing and the good thing, to rehabilitate these offenders and let them have the treatment that they need and not incarcerate them?"
The issue of youth, mental illness and incarceration has been raised repeatedly in the public sphere over the last few years.
New Brunswick teen Ashley Smith, who suffered from behavioural problems, wound up taking her own life in a federal jail in 2007.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal called on the government last year to address mental illness when drafting crime legislation, citing a 2009 statistic that there are three times as many mentally ill Canadians in custody than there are in the general population.
A report by the federal correctional investigator last year estimated that a quarter of all new admissions to federal prisons suffer from mental illness, pointing out that treatment for illnesses is inadequate in the system.
Dr. April Elliott, a member of the Canadian Pediatric Society's adolescent health committee, said the government needs to consider the impact of incarceration on young people, partly because research shows that jail time leads young people to break the law again.
"We know that incarceration, especially lengthy incarceration, can increase both pre-existing mental health issues as well as introducing other issues, and not allowing youth to have appropriate development while incarcerated," said Elliott.
"We're very concerned that there has been no provisions at all looking at this particular evidence that we have."
The crime bill is set to get its third and final reading in the Commons sometime this month.
Meanwhile, a new Statistics Canada survey released Thursday suggests a large majority of Canadians don't see crime as an imminent threat.
The study, conducted in 2009, found 93 per cent of those surveyed said they feel safe from crime — similar a survey in 2004, before Stephen Harper's Conservatives began their tough-on-crime campaign.