Success of Saint John Mental Health Court has advocates calling for expansion in N.B.

court

Criminal offenders with mental health issues in New Brunswick are getting a second change through a revived court program that offers an alternative, focusing on treatment instead of time behind bars.

In the past two years, more than 130 criminal cases have gone before Saint John's revived Mental Health Court.

"People would have life changing moments where they would actually turn their life around," says Greg Zed, a mental health specialist.

The Mental Health Court is an alternative for offenders with mental health issues who plead guilty to move away from the typical criminal justice system into community treatment.

Greg Zed has worked more than four decades in the mental health field and served as the clinical liaison with the mental health docket for the provincial court.

"It streamlines and gives the principles in court including the individual's lived experience, the opportunity to flush out the needs of the individual," explains Zed.

Those needs can include a place to live. That's where an organization like Saint John's Housing Alternatives steps in.

"If you want to talk about rehabilitation or use that word when someone comes out and has the best chance of success, well then their needs have to be met prior to them getting out on the streets and having no place to go," says Ben Appleby, housing coordinator at Housing Alternatives.

The Mental Health Court started in Saint John as a pilot project back in 2000 and became permanent in 2004. But when supervising Judge Alfred Brien retired in 2013, the program was suspended.

In 2017, Premier Brian Gallant's Liberal provincial government announced the docket would be returning to Saint John in November.

Now there are calls to see the program expanded to other parts of the province- and advocates say you don't need to look far to find a precedent of a Mental Health Court that has expanded throughout an Atlantic province

This year also marks a decade since the Nova Scotia Mental Health Court first opened its doors in Dartmouth in 1999, and there are now several programs across the province. In fact, the province is currently in the process of establishing programs in Truro and Bridgewater.

"We believe it would work in any city you want to put it in," says Appleby.

In a statement to CTV News, New Brunswick's Minister of Justice and Attorney General Andrea Anderson-Mason said;

"We strongly believe that the mental health docket is having positive impacts in the Saint John region and it has the potential to do the same across the province. However, it would be premature to speculate how and when an expansion might happen."

Still, some advocates are hopeful that the system will be expanded beyond Saint John in the near future.

(With files from CTV Atlantic's Laura Lyall)