NOFAS Applauds Actions Taken by the Manitoba, Canada, Court System

NOFAS applauds the recent actions taken by the Manitoba, Canada, court system to help individuals living with an FASD who are trapped in the criminal justice system. Their program helps inform Manitoba judges and lawyers about FASD and supports people with possible FASD in getting a diagnosis. 

We know that individuals with FASD are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, often as the result of behavioral and emotional problems stemming from FASD.  They often experience particularly negative outcomes due to the lack of institutional awareness and support of FASD.  For example, they may struggle to understand the rules of the courtroom and be unable to fully assist their attorney.

The Manitoba court system has established a special courtroom to accommodate the needs of individuals living with an FASD. The new courtroom offers a smaller and less overwhelming environment, with minimal distractions, and utilizes visuals to help participants understand their court proceedings. 

This is a great step forward for the FASD community in Manitoba.  We would love to see this sort of specialized program for accommodating individuals living with an FASD to be implemented throughout the United States court system.

NOFAS has extensive information about FASD and criminal justice on our website, available here.

Please read the news article below for more information on the Manitoba court system.

Winnipeg Free Press (Canada)

Less punishment, more justice

February 6, 2019 Wednesday

“Here is a sentence that is not written often enough: Manitoba has good news for people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder caught up in the justice system.

A new court is set to open in Manitoba this month with judges who are better informed about FASD. The special court will sit one day a week and will include support workers to connect sufferers with community programs.

A court sensitive to the many challenges faced by sufferers of FASD has been a long time coming.

People afflicted with the neurodevelopmental disorder may view the world in a way that is at odds with the traditional tenets of the justice system.

For example, they may act impulsively without connecting cause and effect, making them less responsible for their actions.

In more serious instances, they can be incapable of reading because alcohol damaged their brain when they were in vitro. One possible result of being unable to read legal notices is they can get into further legal problems. As examples, perhaps they don’t appear in court when they should, or they don’t understand bail conditions such as a curfew.

Unable to fully comprehend the justice system and their legal rights, sufferers of FASD are more likely to end up behind bars. Research shows as many as 25 per cent of inmates in federal correctional facilities could have some form of FASD, which is often undiagnosed.

A program started in 2004 offered Manitoba judges and lawyers information about FASD, and also helped possible sufferers get a diagnosis and help from community agencies. This program’s commendable work will be furthered by the new court opening this month. There will be a smaller, quieter courtroom with fewer distractions and visual images will be used to make sure offenders understand what’s going on.

It’s the latest example of Manitoba’s justice system adapting to serious social problems. The province already has a drug-treatment court, a mental-health court and a domestic-violence court, and is currently investigating the possibility of a restorative-justice court.

While the new FASD court promises an enlightened approach to providing justice, it’s hoped a similar sensitivity can be displayed within the penal system.

A Correctional Service Canada report in 2011 looked at FASD’s prevalence at Stony Mountain Institution, and recommendations included FASD screening upon admission to federal corrections. Unfortunately, that recommendation was not adopted.

Proper diagnoses are important so inmates with FASD can get programs behind bars that will help them function in the community without reoffending.

It’s true the first step to fighting FASD is educating women about the dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant, but once the damage is done, penal institutions and the justice system must adapt to the unique challenges of FASD with an agenda in which punishment is less important than connecting the offenders with resources that can help them.

For people with FASD, the new court seems like a big win. And if the court steers offenders toward community supports that divert them from further crimes, it’s also a big win for the community.”

Credit: Editorial