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Call for federal leaders to commit to enhancing justice for persons with dementia

Dementia Justice Canada wants a national Roadmap to Justice
Heather Campbell Pope_jpg
Heather Campbell Pope

With the 2021 federal election underway, Dementia Justice Canada is urging federal party leaders to commit to developing and implementing a national Roadmap to Justice to ensure the fair, just and compassionate treatment of persons with dementia who enter the criminal justice system due to symptoms of their disease.

Established in 2017, Dementia Justice Canada advocates for systemic reforms and conducts interdisciplinary legal and policy research in an effort to protect the health, rights and dignity of people caught up in the criminal justice system due to responsive behaviours associated with dementia. 

Heather Campbell Pope, founder and principal advocate for Dementia Justice Canada, feels the federal government missed the mark with their National Dementia Strategy, launched in June 2019. 

“The strategy does not address persons with dementia who enter the criminal justice system due to responsive behaviours,” Campbell Pope explained. “This was a missed opportunity by the federal Liberals. The Roadmap to Justice is a chance for the next government to correct this oversight.”

The Roadmap to Justice would set out the areas of concern that are in need of reform, including improving police responses and prosecution policies, housing and immigration consequences of criminal involvement, and modernizing the criminal laws so people with dementia are treated in a fair, efficient and compassionate manner.

She feels a lot of good work has already been undertaken by Correctional Service of Canada and others on improving how the prison system manages older offenders, including those with dementia.

“Our main focus, and our hope for the Roadmap to Justice, is to create greater awareness and urge reform on the problems happening at the earlier stages of the justice system,” Campbell Pope explained. “This is geared toward people who have dementia at the time of the offence.”

Campbell Pope says Manitoba is currently the leader in the country in regards to this issue, having taken an active role in addressing the particular challenges associated with crimes committed by those suffering from dementia. One notable incident occurred in 2015, when care home resident Joseph McLeod was charged with manslaughter after shoving fellow resident, 87-year-old Frank Alexander to the floor, resulting in his death. 

“The judge made a number of recommendations that hold promise to affect positive change,” Campbell Pope explained. “Many of the suggestions are relevant to other provinces too, such as increasing the number of specialized beds for persons with dementia who exhibit responsive behaviours.”

Joseph McLeod was eventually found unfit to stand trial.

Campbell Pope also feels that Manitoba’s prosecution manual, which mentions criminal defendants with dementia, is another big step in the right direction. 

“To my knowledge, it is the only prosecution policy in the country that specifically refers to situations where a person with dementia is the perpetrator.”

Saskatchewan has also taken some important steps in the right direction, including the addition of a specialized dementia care unit in Regina. 

“More spaces are needed, so it is encouraging that the province recently announced new long-term care beds. We hope some will be for those who enter, or are at risk of entering, the justice system due to responsive behaviours.”

She would also like the initiative to be inclusive of anyone living with dementia, regardless of age. 

Underdiagnosis can lead to missed opportunities for diversion out of the justice system. They might end up languishing in the system without proper care and supports.

“The biggest challenge is identifying dementia among younger people, especially those in their 50s and early 60s with frontotemporal dementia. No one may realize that their unusual behaviour is because of dementia. Training professionals in the justice system to recognize dementia would be an important aspect of the Roadmap to Justice.

“There is also a growing number of individuals who are being charged with historical offences, often sexual offences that occurred decades ago. They now have dementia and are facing trial. These situations are also of concern to us and we would like to see them addressed in the Roadmap to Justice.”

Campbell Pope acknowledges that these are delicate issues which can be tricky for government officials to address publicly.

“Talking about violence and dementia risks perpetuating negative stereotypes, so there is naturally some resistance to engage with the issues. But we can't bury our heads in the sand and ignore this dark side of the disease. Government officials have shown an openness to talking about it behind closed doors. Now we need a political leader to champion the issue.”