Expenditures on the Canadian criminal justice system have increased significantly in the last 10 years despite decreasing crime rates, a new report has found.
In a March 20 report, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer concluded that expenditures on criminal justice have increased by 66 per cent since 2002, reaching $20.3 billion this year.
The report looks at expenses for the entire criminal justice system, including policing, courts, and corrections.
According to the budget officer’s report, court expenditures at the federal level have decreased; however, court expenses at the provincial and territorial levels have increased to 0.173 per cent of gross domestic product from 0.152 per cent.
These expenditures are for both civil and criminal activities as no data sources were available to separate the two types of expenses.
While taxpayer dollars are flowing into criminal justice, the budget officer’s report noted the Canadian crime rate has decreased by 30.6 per cent in the last 10 years to 5,757 incidents per 100,000 people from 7,516. The report noted the crime rate has been declining steadily since 1991.
The federal budget officer isn’t the only official raising concerns about spending on the criminal justice system.
A 2012 Ontario auditor general’s report suggested that while the number of criminal cases in Ontario has remained relatively stagnant in the last 20 years, taxpayers’ money has gone towards paying for more Crown employees during that same period with the number of lawyers and staff more than doubling.
And while the budget officer put some of the provincial increases down to higher capital spending on the courts in Ontario, the auditor general’s report offers other reasons for the increased expenditures.
The audit report revealed that the criminal law division of the Ministry of the Attorney General had operating expenses totalling $256 million for the 2011-12 fiscal year with 84 per cent of those funds going to staffing. While the number of Crown employees has more than doubled in the last 20 years, the number of cases has remained almost the same with 572,000 matters in 1992 and 576,000 in 2011.
In an e-mail, ministry spokesman Brendan Crawley said the rising staffing costs and stagnant caseloads are due to the fact that cases “are more complex than they were 20 years ago and Crowns are also doing more today than they were 20 years ago.”
He cited several reasons for this, including constitutional challenges, the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences, and more complex disclosure requirements.
As millions of taxpayer dollars go towards staffing, the audit report concluded ministry offices don’t have adequate systems in place to hold their employees accountable by tracking workloads, efficiency, and quality of performance.
“When we last audited the division in 1993, we noted ‘a systemic emphasis on prosecutorial discretion,’ and that monitoring was done by ‘more subjective means, such as informal feedback and personal knowledge about the individuals involved.’ This observation remains valid today,” the report noted.
The audit report also found that the division “does not have a systematic process in place to ensure that services at its 54 Crown attorney offices are consistently meeting minimum standards.” It noted that at 11 Crown offices, there were “no standards for recording decisions and events, forms were either missing or not used, and case files were missing.”
Crawley indicated that since the release of the audit report, the ministry is working towards improvements, including in information and case management; monitoring and tracking cases; and key performance indicators.
He stated: “We recognize the need for measuring workload effectively and the benefit this has for overall organizational planning. Defining workload is challenging for a prosecution service as large as Ontario’s and there are many variables and factors that must be taken into consideration.
We are comparing how other jurisdictions measure workload to see if there are processes we can apply here.”
Anthony Doob, a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, says there’s “a long tradition in the Ministry of the Attorney General of not managing what they are doing by looking carefully at data.” He adds that the idea of making this information public is also not part of the tradition.
While other provinces track each Crown lawyer’s workload and have electronic case-management systems in place, Ontario has fallen behind. The audit report stated that an electronic management system that was to have been in place by now “has been significantly delayed because of weak management, oversight, and financial reporting and insufficient resources being dedicated to the project.”
Ontario’s Crown offices “have an antiquated, not very useful information system and they’re really hampered by that,” says Doob.
The new electronic system was originally supposed to be running by March 2010 at a cost of $7.9 million but it’s still not in place. As of November 2011, the estimated costs had ballooned to $11.5 million with an expected launch in March 2015.
In a Dec. 17, 2012 story, Law Times reported that the ministry was considering scrapping the electronic system altogether. On the other hand, the audit report noted Alberta had paid $1 for the rights to use and further develop Manitoba’s case management system.
“At this time, the division is continuing to evaluate existing case management systems from other jurisdictions, as well as systems used by police services to see if there are components that could be used in Ontario,” said Crawley.
Despite the increase in the number of Crown attorneys, taxpayers may not be getting their money’s worth.
Statistics Canada figures reveal that Ontario had the highest rate — 43 per cent — of adult criminal charges withdrawn or stayed in 2010 and 2011. For the rest of Canada, the number was 26 per cent. At the same time, Ontario had the lowest rate of guilty verdicts at only 56 per cent whereas the rest of Canada was at 69 per cent.
The audit report pointed out that “the division does not have the information needed to determine the reasons for this or whether this relates more to certain regions or Crown attorney offices.”
While low conviction rates and high numbers of stays and withdrawals suggest problems in Ontario’s justice system, criminal defence lawyer J.S. Vijaya says higher conviction rates don’t necessarily mean success.
“It is not supposed to be a scorecard measure of success like a hockey game or a football score. It’s not that simple.” He notes Crown attorneys are not supposed to care if they win or lose.
“There is a tendency to overcharge everything which is under the sun,” says Vijaya, noting police officers will lay several charges knowing people will use plea bargains to reduce them.
The Toronto region may be costing taxpayers more than other areas. The audit report indicated it costs more to resolve a charge in Toronto. The Toronto region has the most charges in total, but the cost on average is $437 per charge compared to $268 in other locations.
In response to inquiries on the reasons for the higher costs in Toronto, Crawley wrote: “As the auditor general explained in his report, the ministry does not track this type of data. The criminal law division is still reviewing these findings.”
For more, see "Ontario's planned electronic case management system facing the axe."