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A Bill seeking to correct deficiencies in the criminal justice system in relation to the treatment of mentally challenged individuals in conflict with the law, is now before the Upper House.
Attorney General and Justice Minister, Senator A.J. Nicholson who piloted the Bill in the Senate today (November 3), said the Bill amending the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act, and its companion legislation, the Legal Aid Amendment Act, sought to deal with the treatment of persons in the society who suffer from mental disorders and come into conflict with the law, and consequently enter the criminal justice system.
“It is aimed at correcting the deficiencies which currently exist in addressing the matters surrounding the fitness of mentally challenged individuals to plead and to be tried,” he explained.
The Minister said the provision was also specifically intended to address inefficiencies in the absence of capable tracking and monitoring systems, noting that “poor record-keeping has also contributed to the failure in identifying inmates who have been in custody for many years”.
“This is the malady mainly, which we seek to address,” Senator Nicholson pointed out.
He noted that the Bill addressed the first two of three categories of persons suffering from mental disorders in the criminal justice system, classified as those awaiting trial or determination of competence or fitness to stand trial, persons found guilty but were insane, and persons convicted of manslaughter instead of murder on the grounds of “diminished responsibility”.
The Attorney General further pointed out that the present system, which is erected on the 1816 law enacted in England and received in Jamaica in 1872, could work effectively without adjustment.
“The current system sadly lacks effective management and control and it creates opportunities for errors and has simply, in many respects failed.Presently there are deficiencies in the legal, administrative and treatment machinery,” Senator Nicholson said.
In addition, the Minister said that proper facilities to monitor the progress of persons detained for treatment have been inadequate, pointing out that there have been no reliable mechanisms to ensure that upon being certified by the medical practitioner as being capable of standing trial, the inmate would be taken before the Court for a determination to be made.
He noted that the majority of mentally ill persons awaiting conviction were charged with “serious” and at times “very serious” crimes, adding that an audit of the two correctional centres housing mentally ill inmates last year had revealed that there were some 75 such inmates, 28 of whom were charged with murder. He said that since then, the number has been reduced and the situation was being closely monitored.
Senator Nicholson said while the passing of the legislation would not be a panacea for all ills, once implemented it would speed up the process of dealing with mentally challenged persons. With the amendment, reference to “criminal lunatic” would be removed and the term “mental disorder” used.
Labour and Social Security State Minister, Senator Floyd Morris expressed his satisfaction with the matters to be corrected by the legislation. He said it represented “forward thinking” on the part of the government.
Furthermore, he said the Government’s commitment to protecting persons with disabilities, which was evidenced in the raft of legislation brought before the House to date, represented the “emergence of a new culture as it relates to persons with disabilities”.
Senator Morris said it was unfortunate that individuals with mental disabilities got lost in the system, but it was heartening that the problem has been recognized and is being addressed.
Debate on the legislation, which is accompanied by the Legal Aid Amendment Act, to make provision for certain persons to be afforded legal aid when their matters are placed before the Court, was suspended to accommodate the Opposition’s contribution.