Nunavut justice department taking a look at wellness courts
Yukon offers successful model to divert addicted and mentally ill offenders
If Eetooloo Ejetsiak had spent most of his adult life fighting the demons in his head, and those perceived demons around him, in Whitehorse or Yellowknife instead of Iqaluit, he might not be on his way to a federal prison today.
Ejetsiak, the subject of a controversial cell-block scuffle with police which was caught on video — a troubled, violent man with a rap sheet more than 100 convictions long — was sentenced in Nunavut court Feb. 18 to three years in prison for uttering threats and assault causing bodily harm.
But had he been in Yukon, lawyers there might have examined his lengthy criminal record, his violent tendencies, the abuse he suffered as a child, his multiple addictions, the murder of his mother and brother and his repeated suicide attempts and decided: here’s a guy who needs serious help.
And if the Crown and defence lawyers agreed, and if Ejetsiak plead guilty and was committed to changing his life, they would bring him before Judge Karen Ruddy, who presides over Yukon’s Community Wellness Court.
And if, after careful consideration, everyone agreed that Ejetsiak deserved a chance to become a functioning citizen — instead of sentencing him to jail time, Ruddy might send him to a case manager instead who would help draft a comprehensive wellness plan to guide the next couple years of Ejetsiak’s life.
That intensive plan would include many challenges such as regular drug and alcohol testing, tedious lifestyle monitoring, finding a job and a place to live, maybe going back to school and of course, intensive therapies to deal with trauma, depression, addiction and anger management.
And if he worked hard and was able to comply with all the conditions set out for him and went back before Judge Ruddy with proof that he’d made good on his promises — or at least tried to — she would take all that into account during sentencing.
For offenders who make it through the therapeutic court process, Ruddy usually imposes community-based sentences or periods of probation.
More importantly, Ejetsiak would be a different person, and he might stay out of trouble. But he lives in Nunavut, so he’s going back to jail.
That could change, however, if some MLAs and judicial advocates have their way.
“This is one step in the right direction to recognize the fact that people suffering from mental illness and addiction make up the majority of court cases we are seeing today,” said Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak.
“It would be money well spent. If we can invest now and really try and help as many as we can by doing things differently, then maybe we would spend less money on re-offenders.”
Angnakak, along with South Baffin MLA David Joanasie, raised the topic of wellness courts with Justice Minister Paul Okalik during legislative committee of the whole discussions last November.
Okalik provided some basic information on how accused people could be diverted but added that his department is still researching the idea. The minister did not return our phone calls for this story.
But it appears there is some forward momentum.
Steve Mansell, Nunavut’s assistant deputy attorney general, said he and other justice staff have visited the Yukon court and are currently compiling their findings.
Mansell said they were in “very early stages,” at this point and added that part of the research would involve working with the health department to determine what’s needed by way of treatment and therapy.
“We don’t have a firm timeline yet. But I can say it’s a priority for the department and we’re working hard on the background and the policy work right now to move it forward.”
Ruddy has seen many people like Ejetsiak — and she’s seen them change.
“Our very first graduate hadn’t had a period of sobriety since her early teens. She was in her early-to mid-30s at this point. Hers was a drug addiction,” said Ruddy.
“By the time she finished, she’d been clean for two years. She was in school, working part time and had all of her children back. There have been significant changes in her life.”
The Yukon’s Community Wellness Court — which attempts to solve the underlying issues that prompt criminal behaviour — has been operating since 2007. The NWT just established a similar court in October 2014.
It has lawyers and judges like any other court, but its mandate is to divert repeat offenders with mental health problems, addictions, or both, away from a perpetual cycle of arrest and incarceration and into programs that can help them deal with complex, sometimes lifelong struggles.
If people learn to better manage their mental health and overcome addiction, the theory goes, they’ll stop stealing and fighting and doing damage to themselves, their loved ones and their communities.
A 2011 external review of the Yukon court proves that to be true.
One part of the study examined the behaviour of 10 clients who completed the wellness treatment program through to sentencing. At the time of the study’s publication, only three had re-offended.
Many lawyers who work in Nunavut — and likely police officers too, if they were allowed to talk to reporters — say a wellness court is long overdue.
They say it’s a waste of money and resources to keep throwing sick people behind bars because most of them keep committing crimes and their criminal records grow and judges impose conditions that are impossible to keep — don’t drink, stay away from your family — and so even just breaching conditions could get them arrested.
And what about the husbands, wives, children, lovers, friends and parents of these troubled repeat offenders — some of whom might be victims? What do they do when an offender gets out of jail: angry, vengeful, depressed, alienated?
“Crimes don’t happen in isolation. If someone continues to offend, there’s the impact on everyone who’s victimized in that process and everyone who’s connected to them,” said Ruddy, and that includes business that get robbed or vandalized.
“While it’s very difficult to quantify how much you’re saving when you’re able to get someone on track so they’re not offending, you’re not just saving monetary costs, you’re preventing those impacts on the people around them.”
Others point to how the jail system does little to help offenders reintegrate into their communities and reconcile with families.
That’s important because once out of jail, offenders often return to small hamlets where social services are scarce and where women with children to feed, for instance, might feel obliged to take back troubled spouses because they need the financial help, or because they are too troubled themselves to say no.
Or worse, says Iqaluit legal aid lawyer Alison Crowe — some victims don’t even call the cops when their spouses get drunk and assault them because losing a breadwinner is sometimes worse than abiding an alcoholic and intermittently abusive partner.
“The hard truth is that alcohol is bringing Nunavut to its knees, if it hasn’t already done so,” said Crowe. “To deal with addictions by hearing a lecture from the bench is a completely futile exercise.
“We have to start out with the attitude that these people are salvageable — almost all of them are — and get out of the good guy-bad guy paradigm and try to find a way to get these people back into their communities.”
James Morton, another well-known defence lawyer who practices in Nunavut, said most offenders who appear in Nunavut courtrooms were once victims themselves — of physical or sexual abuse — and they’ve been self-medicating for years.
“So many people I see in court — and I do the circuits, I go to the hamlets — probably the majority of the people would qualify for a wellness court,” Morton said.
“You look at some of the victims of [convicted pedophile] Ed Horne. I’ve represented some. You look at them, they haven’t really had treatment, they haven’t had counselling, and then they get worse and worse and the crimes get worse and worse and if they could be caught early on, it would lead to less crimes and less people being victimized.
He says Nunavummiut are in fact more forgiving than the rest of the country when it comes to criminal behaviour, mainly because everybody knows someone who’s endured some form of trauma.
“In Calgary, you can sort of make it us-and-them: those are the bad guys,” Morton said. “That’s not true in Nunavut because in Nunavut, us is them.”
Mark Christie, lead criminal counsel for Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik legal aid society, supports wellness courts because he says they help to cut crime rates, reduce docket time and ultimately, save the system money.
Even police, sometimes tasked with arresting the same offenders over and over, agree with restorative justice models. The problem is a lack of programs.
“Of course, we’re one of the agencies identifying that we have no resources to divert people to. Our membership has always been pro-diversion and restorative but there haven’t been the resources,” said Iqaluit’s RCMP spokesperson Yvonne Niego.
“We deal with the incident, we deal with the charges for the accused and have no support structures surrounding that which we can rely on.”
But while many involved in the criminal justice system agree change is required, there are obstacles —money, services and a host of competing priorities within Nunavut’s justice department.
In 2010, the Yukon justice department established a Justice Wellness Centre, a kind of one-stop shop for programs, workshops, and therapy which also serves as a safe and welcoming drop-in centre with coffee and snacks for current and past clients of the program.
Not all programs are delivered out of the centre, Ruddy said, but many are.
Ruddy said the centre made a huge difference, especially for clients with mental health problems because almost everything was centralized in one building making it easy for them to navigate the system.
Richard Meredith, former Nunavut regional director for the Crown in Iqaluit and now special advisor on northern issues for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, said Crown prosecutors have seen the advantages of wellness courts in the western Arctic and would be willing partners if a similar court were set up in Nunavut.
“I don’t think it can replace the justice system. There are some offenders who, because of the seriousness of their issues and their lack of willingness to engage in an intense therapeutic program, that these kinds of programs wouldn’t be possible for them,” Meredith said.
But he and his colleagues with the Crown can point to real examples where people who get help stop offending. “As a concept, the idea of a wellness court makes sense, in Nunavut as in elsewhere.”
One of the biggest challenges is housing — finding a place for an offender to stay while they go through the program.
Ruddy said they’ve had to turn away willing candidates because they can’t find the person a safe, stable place to live. Without that, a treatment plan is doomed to failure.
With Nunavut’s housing shortage, that would likely be a problem here too. And if offenders are going to be sent for treatment, the GN would have to invest in mental health services and addictions treatment programs within the territory.
For Angnakak, these issues can be resolved with political will and strategic shuffling of resources. Ultimately, she says, it’s time to stop making excuses and act.
“The way we’re doing it now is not working,” she said. “We can’t just keep talking about it and not really doing anything. These are real issues affecting people’s families. People need help.”