Joint commentary: BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau, MLA for Cowichan Valley and Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands
Last week, the provincial government released a report on “prolific offenders” – a small group of people who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of neighbourhood crime. The increase in prolific offenses speaks to the unacceptable state of mental healthcare in this province, to the toxic drug crisis, and chronic unaffordability.
The crime and the violence is a symptom of a society that has left our most vulnerable behind. As the B.C. First Nations Justice Council stated, these people lack security and safety, and using the term “prolific offenders” perpetuates harm and stigma. This term fails to get at the root of this problem: these are people we have let fall through the cracks in our social safety net.
Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities. We understand that people across BC are concerned with criminal activity, substance use, and people experiencing mental health issues in their neighbourhood. There have been irreparable harms done that we do not make light of. However, without treating the root of these problems, we cannot hope to make our communities safer for years to come. We must be bold and creative in implementing the types of policies that will address these underlying issues.
More than 10,000 people have died here in BC since the toxic drug crisis was declared a public health emergency six years ago. In that time, the supply of drugs has become even more lethal. More and more people are overdosing.
This poisonous drug supply has not only led to people becoming more addicted, but the methamphetamines in them are directly tied to more violent behaviour. Many who survive overdoses live with brain injuries which are associated with increasingly violent behaviour. This government’s failure to stabilize the toxic drug crisis is one reason for the street crime we are seeing.
We know that substance use is often a symptom of untreated mental illness. The majority of the recommendations in last week’s report speak to the “critical gaps in the continuum of care for people with mental health and substance use needs”. The report calls for the government to invest in civilian-led mental health response teams. Currently, police and hospital emergency departments are the first to respond to a mental health call – although this often exacerbates the crisis. We need to move forward in re-imagining mental health care.
We need trained mental health professionals responding to 9-1-1 calls in place of the police. Last week’s report also calls for the creation of Crisis Response and Stabilization Centres which would offer access to mental health and substance use care, including healthcare, employment services, housing support, and community groups.
The debate on involuntary treatment for people with substance use disorders and/or mental illnesses has resurfaced with the report on “prolific offenders”. Last month, David Eby stated that people overdosing from toxic drugs twice in one day need to be given compulsory treatment. This goes against the majority of experts who warn that involuntary treatment can lead to increased chances of overdosing, and that being detained without consent can worsen trauma for people.
The recommendations from the report stated that involuntary care is not a wise choice without substantially overhauling the outdated Mental Health Act.
BC has been found to be out-of-compliance with this Act on thousands of occasions. Waitlists for those seeking mental health or substance use treatment are weeks to months long, and supportive housing often takes years to become available. If we’re serious about making our communities safer, improving access to treatment and support for those who want it must be a priority.
We must also examine our broken criminal justice system if we hope to address “prolific offenses”. Detention centres in BC are overrun and used as pseudo-treatment facilities, and a significant number of people are placed into solitary confinement. Many of those who have been in solitary confinement – where they’re forced to spend more than 15 days stripped of human contact – face greater impacts on their mental health, their wellbeing, and their ability to live well-adjusted lives after their term.
We applaud the report’s authors in saying “we need a border and more creative set of solutions” to address this crisis. This must come in the form of access to a safe and regulated supply, to secure and affordable housing, to improved access to mental healthcare and treatment, and reforms to our criminal justice system.
These are all policies we’ve been fighting for in the Legislature. In the spring, we tabled legislation to ban the use of prolonged solitary confinement in provincial correctional facilities – a practice that disproportionately impacts Indigenous people. Adam has worked tirelessly on reforming the police act, focusing on re-distributing responsibility for mental health response. Sonia is committed to establishing better mental health supports and addressing the toxic drug crisis, and led the creation of the all-party health committee tasked with finding solutions to the public health emergency.
Our role as opposition party is to hold the government to account. In doing so, we must first be honest about our reality – the complexity of this problem is intertwined with systemic racism, poverty and inequality, the mental health and toxic drug supply crisis. Secondly, we need to move to address this issue with the urgency it deserves.
Now is the time to put forward bold solutions. People need the opportunity to heal rather than be criminalized for falling through the cracks in our system. Rather than the finger pointing we see the Liberals and NDP currently engaged in, this report should be a catalyst for real change.
We understand and sympathize with British Columbians who are concerned about safety and crime in their communities. Safety for all requires the political will to care for the most vulnerable in our society. It requires bold policy solutions in times of need. Now is the time.