Sentencing court for offenders with fetal alcohol spectrum adds new slots for adults, flexibility for youth

Manitoba’s court designed to help offenders with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is tripling the number of hearings for adults to deal with skyrocketing demand for the unique hearings they began offering less than a year ago.

“The demand is very, very high,” said Judge Mary Kate Harvie, who’s in the FASD court and is chair of the committee that spearheaded its creation.

The court handles sentencing for offenders with FASD — a disorder affecting the brain and body caused by the fetus’s exposure to alcohol — on a range of cases from breaches to more serious matters.

“I think, generally speaking, the cases we’re seeing are some of the most challenging that are within our system,” said Harvie.

The court, the first of its kind in Canada when it launched in March, helps offenders with FASD navigate the court system and connects them with specialized help as part of their sentences.

By late October, a Manitoba Justice spokesperson said adults faced a two-month wait time before getting a date — a delay Harvie and other legal experts attributed to high demand and limited sittings.

“At first, it was a little slow, and then, whoosh, it picked up speed,” the judge said. “I think it’s confirmed the suspicions that we had that we needed something specific to address this population, that the numbers are significant and that we need to do better for this population, right across the board.”

FASD’s effects vary from mild to severe. While a minority of people have physical signs — like a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip — some also have cognitive effects, which can include poor memory or learning disabilities.

When the court launched, it heard youth proceedings every Thursday morning at the Manitoba Youth Centre, with alternating adult and youth proceedings at the Manitoba Law Courts on Thursday afternoons. (Read more…)