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Manitoba's Mental Health Courts- what do accused persons think?

Mental health courts are on the rise in Canada, and Manitoba is ground zero for the program. The goal of these courts is diversion of targeted offenders away from the traditional criminal justice system and towards clinical treatments and pro-social outcomes. Of course, how the targeted population is selected for these opportunities remains controversial since so many inmates with mental health issues and psychological symptoms continue to be over-represented in Canada's corrections systems. Other challenges include that offenders need to accept guilt and face a number of repercussions if their engagement with the mental health court does not satisfy the supervising judge. Certainly there are those that tout the benefits of therapeutic jurisprudence and others that critique it as a repressive means of social control that coerces accused persons into guilty pleas including using the beguiling leverage of pressures such as freedom and necessary treatment in order to engage the accused in the process.

There remains profoundly little work about what participants in mental heath courts have to say about the process. This "in their own words" methodology is one that has been recently employed by a Manitoba study. Joshua Watts, a University of Toronto Law student and Dr. Michael Weinrath, a criminologist, recently published a mixed methods study of mental health court participants and found surprisingly favourable attitudes by participants in respect of mental heath court staff and programming. Offenders expressed a preference for procedural fairness and justice throughout the programs while simultaneously, some expressed dismay at the coercive nature of the programs.

The results of this intriguing study can be be read in the latest edition of the Manitoba Law Journal in Watts and Weinrath's: Manitoba's Mental Health Court: A Consumer Perspective. The authors conclude by noting:

"We feel our exploratory study makes a modest contribution to the Canadian mental health court literature, and feel that the consistency of our findings with other research provides support for our results. Future research should examine larger samples and might involve a more prospective study with regards to voluntary entrance into the mental health court. Observing and/or interviewing clients and court staff at various stages of referral and admission (rather than retrospective memory) will provide better insight into actions and decisions by participants and court members. Contrasting criminal justice requirements with therapeutic ones will help researchers keep their analysis balanced. While the use of official records and the opinions of program staff are important, to get a more complete picture, research should continue to engage clients in consumer reports."

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