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Lawyer explores mental health programs for Arctic criminal courts

Priscilla Ferrazzi is hoping her doctoral research in health sciences and what she has learned as a practicing lawyer can help keep people with mental health issues out of the criminal justice system in the Canadian Arctic.

Ms Ferrazzi’ research is looking at the possibility of programs for offenders with mental illnesses in criminal courts in remote, mainly Inuit Arctic communities. The results of her research will lay the groundwork for potential future criminal court initiatives in the Arctic territory of Nunavut – initiatives to ensure many people with mental illnesses who have committed crimes in the Far North avoid prosecution and get help instead.

“In the past two decades, rehabilitation-oriented mental health programs in criminal courts have developed in large Canadian centres. In remote Arctic communities in Nunavut, these programs do not exist,” says Ms Ferrazzi, a Queen’s PhD student who is on leave from her work as an Assistant Crown Attorney specializing in mental health. “As a practicing lawyer prosecuting cases in the north, I saw the potential benefits for people who need to access to these programs and I wanted to research the possibility of implementing them.”

Ms Ferrazzi’s research is supervised by Terry Krupa of the Queen’s School of Rehabilitation Therapy and involves interviews and group sessions with members of the justice community, health workers, community organizations and Inuit elders in the three Arctic communities of Iqaluit, Arviat and Qikiqtarjuaq. She is conducting the research with financial support from the Nunavut Law Foundation, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Federation of University Women and Queen’s University.

The work is licensed by the Nunavut Research Institute, an organization that grants research licenses to researchers from all over the world.

“Using case study interviews allows the people a certain freedom to express themselves,” she says. “I also find the fact I’m a prosecutor lends credibility to the research. I’ve forged some very strong relationships and have an intimate knowledge of the court system.”

Ms Ferrazzi’s results will provide targets and a clear direction that may one day help people with mental illnesses who find themselves in trouble with the law in Arctic communities. The objective is to look for ways these communities can overcome the challenges for these people created by scarce resources, geographic remoteness and cultural barriers faced by Inuit.

The hope is that this work may form the framework for future projects by governments as they seek to tackle this difficult issue.

Ms Ferrazzi expects her study to be completed by spring 2014. For more information visit her website.