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Breakdown: Canada's Mental-Health Crisis

Slim chance for parole from a prison of the mind

It was a federal program meant to get mentally ill young offenders into treatment and out of prisons and lives of crime. It could decide the future of Canada's youngest violent criminals, including an Alberta girl who murdered her parents and brother. But five years after its creation, the IRCS system is hamstrung by restrictive laws and scarce health-care resources, critics say

From Monday's Globe and Mail

CALGARY — Canadian courts are rarely using an innovative federal program designed to rehabilitate mentally ill teens responsible for horrendous crimes, raising concerns that Canada's most troubled youth are returning to the streets without treatment.

When Ottawa introduced the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2003, officials predicted 50 young offenders a year would qualify for the new intensive rehabilitative custody and supervision order - a regime based on the premise that because young minds are malleable, they are also treatable. But now, more than five years into the program, no more than two dozen teens overall have received the sentence.

Experts say the legislation is too restrictive and that Canada lacks the mental-health resources to deal with adolescent criminals. Some complain this last-ditch resource is being bypassed for frivolous reasons, such as offenders being caught smoking or oversleeping. Ottawa says it has taken some steps to remedy the situation, but those who work in the system argue that more needs to be done.

The most notorious offender to receive an IRCS order is an Alberta girl, identified only as J.R., who became Canada's youngest triple murderer after being convicted in the 2006 stabbing deaths of her mother, father and younger brother - crimes committed when she was just 12 years old.

J.R.'s parents had banned her from seeing her boyfriend, Jeremy Steinke, then 23, who is now on trial, charged with three counts of first-degree murder. At her own trial, J.R. was described as "seriously disturbed" and given the maximum 10-year sentence under the IRCS program, which she is serving at an Alberta hospital.

J.R. is, in a sense, a test case.

Canada has a disproportionately large number of mentally ill youngsters in the criminal justice system. Those who work with adolescent offenders are hopeful that a rigorous treatment regime with psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists will help rehabilitate even the most disturbed minds.

"It's like the last possible chance these children have," said Ken McCaffrey, a veteran Crown prosecutor in Calgary. "It's not like I have a great faith, as much as you have to be willing to take a chance. Otherwise these kids' lives, their script has been written for them."

FIRST STEPS

B.J.A. was just 14 when he peered over his sleeping mother, who was curled up on the living room sofa in her Calgary home, and stabbed her 10 times in the neck and head, a court would later learn.

He let her bleed to death, put the knife - its tip broken from striking bone - in the dishwasher, tossed a bloody shirt into the laundry and trotted off to bed.

The teen's older brother discovered the gruesome scene on the morning of Oct. 11, 2001.

B.J.A., who cannot be identified, was "unemotional" when interviewed by police and even "bragged" about the killing, the prosecutor told the court. The apparent motive: His 42-year-old mother had grounded him from seeing his girlfriend.

The boy pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and, after being examined by mental-health experts, was diagnosed as having schizoid personality traits.

In 2004, he became the first person convicted of murder to be sentenced under the IRCS program and was handed the maximum penalty for second-degree murder under the legislation: seven years. With time already served, he was ordered to spend two years in Alberta Hospital, a forensic psychiatric facility in Edmonton, to be followed by three years supervision in the community.

The federal legislation, after years of study and stacks of reports, was introduced on April 1, 2003. The Youth Criminal Justice Act replaced the much-maligned Young Offenders Act and acknowledged what researchers had been noting for years: Canada's incarceration rate of adolescents is one of the highest in the Western world.

To qualify for specialized treatment, the young person must suffer from a "mental illness or disorder, a psychological disorder or an emotional disturbance" and have committed a serious offence. Crimes include first- or second-degree murder, attempted murder, manslaughter or aggravated sexual assault. But youths with a significant criminal record who are convicted for some other serious violent offence could also qualify.

Under the maximum 10-year sentence, up to six years are spent in custody, in places such as psychiatric hospitals and youth correctional centres, before the teen is moved into group homes and finally into the community under supervision.

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