A view of the courthouse building in Yellowknife. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Jail remains the only solution for a Yellowknife man now convicted of more than 90 criminal acts, a court heard, though his repeat offending is linked to significant mental health issues.
The majority of 37-year-old Jacob Griep’s convictions are for theft, vandalism, and shoplifting, or for breaking existing court orders against him. He suffers from an untreated diagnosed mental illness and has for years been “doing what he had to do to survive,” his latest public defender said in court last week.
On Friday, Griep was sentenced in NWT Territorial Court after stealing a donation box from a Yellowknife Tim Hortons, breaking into and ransacking two CBC vehicles, and shoplifting a speaker and cleaning supplies from Shoppers Drug Mart.
How the territory’s justice system handles repeat offenders like Griep was examined by the CBC in 2016. That report demonstrated gaps in the NWT’s approach to caring for and rehabilitating people who don’t have homes and find themselves in a cycle of crime, court, and incarceration.
Five years ago, court orders and jail time had done little to deter Griep, in part because of his diagnoses of schizophrenia and severe depression.
During a sentencing hearing in 2016, Judge Robert Gorin noted: “The criminal court process is a very blunt instrument when it comes to dealing with people who have the problems that Mr Griep has.”
Last week, however, the same instrument was employed.
Deputy Judge Gurmail Gill – a retired BC judge and temporary jurist on the NWT bench – accepted the joint recommendation, made by the Crown and defence lawyer Roopa Mulherkar, that Griep serve 90 days for the latest offences.
In 2015, Griep’s jail caseworker referred his case to the NWT’s Office of the Public Guardian. The public guardian’s job is to help family members or close friends take legal control of people who, due to their mental health, a form of injury or other issues, cannot look after themselves. People who knew Griep at the time told the CBC he is the kind of person the Office of the Public Guardian was created to protect.
It’s not clear if the public guardian ever reviewed Griep’s file – it hadn’t after three months, with reported waiting times of up to a year at the time.
On Friday, Griep’s lawyer told the court his client was first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2004 and placed in supportive living, “but that didn’t work out and he ended up homeless.”
In June 2017, he went to Edmonton for unspecified treatment through the Wellness Court program and has since been involved with the Tree of Peace friendship centre in Yellowknife, “but to this point, his mental health situation is still not been resolved,” said the lawyer.
“And from what I understand, he is not taking his medication as it clashes with his addiction issues,” she said. “What he is doing [criminally] is to feed his addictions.”
Wellness Court is a collaborative effort between the Territorial Court, several GNWT departments, and community agencies, with the RCMP also involved. It offers counselling and programming as an alternative to jail for those with mental health or addictions issues.
In 2019, the International Journal of Circumpolar Health said the NWT’s health and social services system is “complicated, spanning a variety of service providers, professionals, regional authorities and delivery partners.” Its study found many services overlapped, but there were still “some gaps and shortcomings” in mental health services.
Whether Griep has been assisted by Yellowknife’s integrated case management pilot project was not clear. That pilot, now being expanded, offers people help communicating with multiple government agencies at once to ensure they are given swift access to supports they need.
Griep had earned six days of remand credit prior to being sentenced, leaving him with 84 days left to serve.