New 'high-risk' category for mentally ill

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced legislation Friday that places new restrictions on violent offenders deemed not criminally responsible for their actions, invoking a horrific case in British Columbia that saw a mentally ill father kill his three children.

The changes prompted immediate skepticism from mental health experts and advocates, who suggested the Conservative government is viewing mentally ill offenders as criminals who deserve to be punished, rather than patients who need treatment.

But Harper suggested current laws fail to protect the public and victims from violent, mentally ill offenders.

"When atrocious events do occur, and the state fails to act, fails to do all it can do to defend innocent citizens, it violates the inherent trust upon which its existence is justified," Harper said in Burnaby, east of Vancouver.

"We've heard from Canadians loud and clear: Something here is very wrong."

The proposed legislation would allow courts to designate people who are found not criminally responsible for violent crimes as "high risk." Such offenders could be held longer without a formal review, would be ineligible to leave their forensic facility by themselves and would find it far more difficult to leave even with an escort.

Harper unveiled the changes at a news conference in the Vancouver area, not far from where Allan Schoenborn, who was deemed not criminally responsible for the deaths of his three children in 2008 in Merritt, B.C., is scheduled to attend a hearing next week. The hearing will determine whether Schoenborn, who is currently confined to a psychiatric hospital, should be given any access to the outside world.

Harper, who said he met with Schoenborn's ex-wife, Darcie Clarke, earlier Friday morning, said the case exposed "glaring gaps" in the system.

"Currently, there is no obligation under law or regulation to warn the families of their victims that these violent people are returning to the community," he said.

"Here is the biggest problem: Canadians have been shocked to learn that certain violent individuals who, while still in detention, have received unescorted day passes despite still being a significant threat to public safety."

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