FASD and criminal justice system

By Terrence McEachern, 

Leader-Post, Regina, SK 
June 19, 2015

Although many people living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) are not violent, that segment of the population still has a high incidence of involvement with the criminal justice system.

“We know that people with FASD are overrepresented – both as offenders, but also as victims – within the justice system. And we know that in many places around the country, people with FASD are also overrepresented among those who are incarcerated,” said Amy Salmon, executive director of The Canada Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research Network (Can-FASD).

CanFASD was in Regina on Thursday for its annual general meeting and a discussion forum for researchers.

Michelle Stewart’s research involves the role mental health disposition courts in Saskatchewan can have as an alternative justice practice for people with cognitive and intellectual disorders, including FASD.

“So, what we need, when it is possible, is a justice system that understands this person might not actually be purposefully doing the acts that they appear to be doing,” said Stewart, an assistant professor in the Department of Justice Studies at the University of Regina and CanFASD’s strategic research lead for justice issues.

Alternative justice practices and courts can bring together other resources to identify missing supports in the community and work together to help someone with FASD, she said.

The issue of FASD and the criminal justice system was highlighted in the tragic beating death of sixyear-old Lee Bonneau on the Kahkewistahaw First Nation in 2013. The 10-year-old boy responsible for Bonneau’s death had a severe form of FASD.

The disorder was also raised in the sentencing of a man convicted of two counts of second-degree murder in the 2012 deaths of Jessica Redman and Sheldon Yuzicappi. Although the co-accused was 17 at the time of the offences, he was sentenced as an adult to life in prison last month.

The meeting also follows recently released recommendations from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The former calls for changes to the Criminal Code through Bill C-583 to define and include FASD as a mitigating factor at sentencing.

Besides more resources and programs to help prevent and treat FASD, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for statutory exemptions from mandatory minimum sentences when FASD is a factor.

Stewart said the exemption would give discretionary powers to a judge to impose a sentence that fits the individual.

“Sending somebody to jail because we have to, versus trying to figure out something that better suits them, I think we need to give judges discretion. They’re empowered to make really important decisions about people’s lives and we need to give them discretionary power to do that,” she said.