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Crime and treatment

Lynda Steele on some of the response to her column about crime and treating the mentally ill, a ‘radical idea’ shared by BC’s urban mayors.

"Eat shit."

“Racist? Classist?"

"This is moral panic from the ‘90s."

That’s just a sampling of some of the tweets I received after musing about how to handle the hundreds of chronic offenders on Vancouver streets. We’re talking about people dealing with untreated mental illness and addictions who’ve had dozens of run-ins with police.

I suggested that maybe instead of jail, these super offenders should be “sentenced” to in-patient medical treatment. Give them a fighting chance at a healthy, productive life, instead of playing catch and release with police.

Here’s another tweet, quoted in full:

“Man you are a straight up fucking fascist who wants to clear the streets of undesirables.”

Insult me all you want, but I still believe that true compassion is recognizing when someone is incapable of taking care of themselves, and stepping in to do whatever it takes to help get their life back on track. Especially when their actions are negatively impacting the community.

Turn out I’m not alone in thinking that. Thirteen BC mayors just sent a letter to the provincial government, pleading for help dealing with prolific chronic offenders.

The letter detailed troubling criminal offence data. For example, Abbotsford Police are monitoring 81 prolific offenders, a 33% increase from 2019. Fifty are considered “super-prolific,” meaning they have more than 30 convictions. Each.

In Vancouver, 40 super-prolific offenders have an average of 54 convictions each. The letter implored the province to move quickly on finding short- and long-term solutions, saying “more accountability and meaningful consequences are needed."

Many Orca readers support the idea of treating versus incarcerating as a way to stop the cycle of crime plaguing so many neighbourhoods.

David tweeted:

“There should be secure addiction/mental health facilities across the province where these offenders are sent for treatment, incarceration, rehabilitation."

A reader named Stephanie offered this:

“I sincerely hope that we learn lessons from recent history by (instead of criminalization) addressing long standing issues of poverty, economic exclusion & the thread bare social safety net to ensure ppl have what they need to live healthy prosperous lives.”

Have we learned any lessons? How did we get here, and who are these super-prolific offenders in the downtown core?

Research shows they are mentally ill, addicted, mostly homeless individuals, who live on income assistance and have multiple criminal convictions. Most have migrated to Vancouver from other parts of BC.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University followed 107 of these high-frequency offenders identified by Vancouver police over a five year period. They found that, on average, each experienced 59 days in hospital, had 19 criminal convictions, spent nearly 600 days in custody, and another 631 days under community supervision during the study period.

How much do they cost the system? A lot.

The 107 individuals studied by SFU researchers a decade ago received services valued just shy of $250,000 per person over the five year period. That’s roughly $50,000 per year. Each. The costs are likely higher today.

How did we get here?

It started with deinstitutionalization in the 1980s. Government promised to replace psychiatric institutions like Riverview with community mental health care facilities. It broke that promise, largely abandoning the mentally ill altogether.

In the mid-‘90s, the federal government abdicated responsibility for funding affordable housing and related social programs, leaving it up to the provinces.

Then BC made things worse by opening up our real estate markets to the world, creating massive wealth inequality.

Today, BC is once again warehousing people with mental health and addictions challenges in congregate settings like modular housing and old hotels.

Dr. Julian Somers is a clinical psychologist and addictions specialist at SFU. He was part of the team that studied Vancouver’s prolific offenders a decade ago.

Somers says the provincial decision to move homeless campers from Oppenheimer Park to hotels on Granville Street in 2020 was a complete fail.

“Campers were not provided with psychosocial assessments as the foundation for determining action; the interventions ran counter to public health and evidence of ‘what works best’ for people in need.”

So what does work?

Dr. Somers believes the answer lies in recovery-oriented independent housing, in neighbourhoods where people actually want to live. Not congregate settings where addicts and mentally ill people are lumped together in unhealthy and unsafe environments.

Residents would get daily wraparound psychosocial care to manage their addictions and mental health issues and help them re-integrate into society with hope and dignity. The housing model has proven to work in Vancouver specific research trials.

The cost? $38,000 per person for the first year, with costs declining “as people’s wellness improves."

A formal pitch was made to the BC government in 2021, with a plan to recruit 500 people for a three-year trial period. There was a detailed budget attached.


Instead, the province is planning to open a handful of complex care housing sites in Vancouver, Surrey, Abbotsford, Langley and Fraser South. There’s funding for a total of 500 beds in BC over the next three years.

Dr. Somers thinks the province’s plan fails on three levels.

  • It’s not available yet.
  • It’s not enough. His team estimates there are at least 2,500 adults in need of those beds right now.
  • It’s a congregate housing plan. Not what people with complex addictions and mental health challenges say they need or want.

Julian Somers is convinced the right kind of housing is the answer to getting prolific offenders back on track.

As for the “fascist” idea of forcing prolific offenders to take medical treatment whether they want it or not? That’s already happening.

Vancouver’s Drug Treatment Court sentences problem drug users to mandatory treatment instead of incarceration. It’s the only drug court in Canada with an integrated treatment team of addiction doctors, counsellors, and peer support workers.

Drug users have to complete a 14 month non-residential treatment program to “graduate.” Since the drug court first opened in 2001, 300 have done just that. Dr. Somers evaluated the program in 2012 and found drug-related recidivism dropped by 56% over a two year period. Overall criminal re-offending was lowered by 35%.

So apparently mandating treatment can be part of the solution.