A sentencing hearing was held May 2, 2022 for a woman convicted of arson for a 2018 fire at The Village supportive housing project on School Street in Chilliwack. (GoogleMaps)

A sentencing hearing was held May 2, 2022 for a woman convicted of arson for a 2018 fire at The Village supportive housing project on School Street in Chilliwack. (GoogleMaps)

OPINION: Justice system ill-equipped to tackle mental health issues

Self-represented arsonist showed several signs of mental illness during trial and sentencing

In the early hours of March 27, 2018 a 40-year-old woman put her belongings in two piles in her apartment at a supportive housing complex in Chilliwack, poured five containers of lighter fluid on them, and lit them on fire.

I’m not going to use her name. I’ll call her Patricia.

Patricia also covered the smoke detector and the apartment’s sprinkler head. Then, she walked out of the room, locked the door behind her, and left the building.

Luckily for the other residents in the building – which included a blind person and someone in a wheelchair – Patricia didn’t do a very good job of stopping the sprinkler system from working.

Chilliwack Fire Department crews attended the fire, which was at The Village on School Street. They credited the sprinkler system with dousing the intentionally set fires.

READ MORE: Sprinklers limit fire damage in Chilliwack supportive housing complex

Residents were able to evacuate. No one was hurt. But between the fire and water, the building suffered thousands of dollars in damage, according to evidence heard in B.C. Supreme Court.

And people could have been killed.

Crown counsel charged Patricia with arson with disregard for human life. She represented herself in court and was found guilty.

“This could have been something that killed a number of people,” Crown counsel Lisa Helps said at Patricia’s sentencing hearing on Monday.

The case was unusual because not only did Patricia not have a lawyer defending her, she exhibited signs of mental illness both in connection with her actions regarding the arson but also in the courtroom. Yet she refused a psychiatric assessment or a pre-sentence report, something courts use to explain an offender’s background.

“You don’t trust psychiatrists?” Justice Kathleen Ker asked Patricia at the end of the hearing.

“No,” she responded. “They are no better than drug dealers.”

Here then is the problem: Without a specific medical diagnosis, an offender’s mental illness cannot be a mitigating factor in sentencing. But you can’t force someone to get a diagnosis even if it would likely be in their best interests.

It’s reminiscent of Catch-22 from Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel. In the satirical Second World War classic, Yossarian thinks everyone is trying to kill him. And to get out of flying bombing missions, one must be crazy. But to apply to get out means you must be sane.

Patricia seemed so full of delusion and paranoia but she believes herself to be perfectly capable. The most rational thing for her to do would probably be to give in to a psychiatric examination, something a sane person wouldn’t need: catch-22.

What this case is an example of, in my opinion, is how the levers and gears of the criminal justice system are ill-suited to manage the complex and nuanced world of mental illness. And everyone involved knows it.

As Patricia went down one rabbit hole after another in court in response to relatively straightforward questions from Justice Ker, it had to be obvious to the seasoned judge and the experienced Crown counsel that courtroom 203 was not the place, nor was a criminal sentencing the tool, to deal properly with this troubled woman.

But all involved have no choice but to work within the confines of the law.

Crown counsel put forth her sentencing submission, asking for either three years in prison (a federal sentence) or two years less a day followed by three years of probation.

If it’s the latter, Crown asked for a so-called Rogers order, which compels an accused to seek treatment for substance abuse and/or mental illness, but Justice Ker explained to Patricia that she would have to consent to the counselling.

Part of the delusion was evident when, as part of her own submissions, Patricia put forth her high school and community college transcripts that she alleges were tampered with by someone.

The hearing ended with her asking, woefully, “How did this happen to me? Someone with my grades?”

“I can’t answer that,” Justice Ker responded.

Mental illness and criminal justice. Never the twain shall meet.

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ArsonBC Supreme CourtchilliwackCops and Courts