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MENTAL COURT - Proposals made for inmates unfit to plead

Published:Friday | October 30, 2020 | 12:12 AMRomario Scott/Gleaner Writer
Carla Gullotta.
Carla Gullotta.

One human rights lobby has backed a raft of recommendations for improving the island’s justice system to prevent mentally ill persons accused of crimes being abused or detained in the penal system, where they could end up being lost for decades.

The decades-old issue was thrown into the spotlight again earlier this year when 81-year-old Noel Chambers died in custody after being held for 40 years without a trial.

He was one of 146 mentally ill people being held by the correctional department without trial, a report by the Independent Commission of Investigations revealed.

With the courts facing the heat for the human-rights crisis at correctional facilities holding the mentally ill detainees, many of whom were being held at the court’s pleasure, the judiciary empanelled a committee to examine the failures of the system that led to the tragedy.

Among the recommendations from the Justice Georgiana Fraser-chaired 11-member committee is that a mental health court be established to facilitate interaction between stakeholders in the justice system with interest in inmates with mental problems. The committee said the court would have to be well-resourced and training undertaken at all levels to function as envisioned.

It also recommended that the judges be given the power to place mentally challenged people coming before them in a court-diversion programme to shift those with mental troubles out of the normal adversarial trial process.

Stand Up For Jamaica Executive Director Carla Gullotta told The Gleaner yesterday that such reforms are long overdue as they have been among programmes being lobbied for by activists for quite some time.

“I think that is an excellent initiative. We are completely supporting this idea. We have been asking for diversion, so if this is happening, we are welcoming it,” Gullotta said.

Gullotta said that within the last month, her group had successfully lobbied for the release of a number of mentally ill inmates.

“We have around 12 more that we are working on, so if that is something that has been agreed, that will help,” she said.

Gullotta said most of the inmates had been in detention for over 30 years without any trial for the charges levelled against them.

“We have one that was there for 30 years for smashing a car window, and he should have been there for, like, six months,” she pointed out, highlighting the plight of mentally ill detainees, who are generally found unfit to plead.

The review committee also proposed adjustments to the legal test to determine whether accused persons are fit to plead.

“It is recommended that this test be reformulated by statute to focus on decision-making capacity rather than intellectual ability of the mentally disordered defendants,” the committee put forward.

Gullotta renewed a call for more psychiatrists in the penal system for it to properly function. Earlier this year, it was revealed that there was only one psychiatrist in the system, serving roughly 4,600 inmates, and the Government committed to boosting the numbers.

“For the courthouses, they need some forensic psychiatrists. For people who are dangerous for themselves and dangerous for people, they should be in an institution to get professional help,” Gullotta told The Gleaner.

The committee also supported that point, recommending that the health minister take immediate steps in designating an appropriate facility or facilities suitable for the housing and treatment of the mentally disordered defendants in keeping with the scheme of the existing legislation and international conventions.

The only designated psychiatric facility by law remains the Bellevue Hospital in Kingston, which is reportedly not accepting new patients, creating a situation where the mentally ill accused are stuck in the detentions system.