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Justice reform tightens release rules for dangerously insane

Federal heritage minister James Moore, Stacy Galt and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, photographed Friday in Burnaby. Galt is the cousin of Darcie Clark, whose three children (pictured) were slain by Clark
Federal heritage minister James Moore, Stacy Galt and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, photographed Friday in Burnaby. Galt is the cousin of Darcie Clark, whose three children (pictured) were slain by Clark's ex-husband.
— image credit: Jason Ransom/PMO

The Conservative federal government is pledging new justice reforms to indefinitely lock up highly dangerous mentally ill offenders who were found not responsible for their crimes.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the announcement Friday in Burnaby and made reference to Darcie Clark, whose three children were killed five years ago in Merritt by her deranged ex-husband Allan Schoenborn.

The  Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act tabled by the government tightens provisions for the release of offenders like Schoenborn.

Courts will now be able to use a new category of high-risk mentally disordered accused.

Instead of annual reviews by provincial review boards to determine if they're fit to be released, a judge can order the offender be held for up to three years before a review.

And offenders with that designation would not be released unless a judge agrees.

The courts will also be able to ban provincial review boards from issuing controversial unescorted day passes to designated offenders.

Schoenborn, who is in a psychiatric hospital in Coquitlam, is slated for his next annual review Feb. 15.

"These reforms cannot undo the terrible things that have been perpetrated on victims like Darcie Clark and her children," Harper said. "Buy they will help her and other victims regain control of their lives."

The prime minister said Canadians have been shocked to learn some violent individuals in detention for their mental illness have been given unescorted day passes despite still being deemed a threat to public safety.

"Something here is very wrong," Harper said. "The safety of the public must be the paramount consideration."

Provincial review boards will now be able to better restrict the movements of offenders it does release, by ordering they not have contact with victims or other individuals, and by ordering them to stay away from certain places.

A coalition of mental health groups urged Ottawa to carefully consider the need to promote the recovery of mentally disordered offenders while pursuing public safety aims.

"These changes will unnecessarily heighten the public's fears, increase negative stigma around mental illness and ultimately undermine the reintegration of [not criminally responsible offenders] without increasing public safety," said Schizophrenia Society of Canada CEO Chris Summerville.

He said offenders declare not criminally responsible account for just 0.001 per cent of all criminal charges and they have a far lower rate of recidivism – around five per cent – compared to more than 40 per cent for regular convicts serving federal time.

SFU restorative justice expert Brenda Morrison said the legislation puts more focus on victims instead of offenders, but much will depend on how the government implements it.

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