While the rate of reported crimes is the lowest it has been in decades, the cost of Canada’s criminal justice system is steadily increasing, say top federal justice department officials.
Testifying before the House of Commons justice committee, Donald Piragoff, senior assistant deputy minister in the policy sector, painted a picture of a criminal justice system straining at the seams.
The rate of violent crimes has dropped 28 per cent over the past decade and robbery decreased 39 per cent. At the same time, the cost of running the criminal justice system has risen 36 per cent over the past 10 years and is continuing to increase. Policing costs are up 43 per cent. Corrections costs have risen 32 per cent and the cost of the court system is up 21 per cent.
One reason for the increase in costs is the fact that police officers are increasingly asked to play a social worker role, Piragoff explained.
While the United Nations says across the world one quarter of people in prison have not yet received a sentence or are awaiting trial, the rate is much higher in Canada, said Piragoff.
“In Canada . . . for the last decade, more than half of those in provincial/territorial custody are in remand — that is they are not sentenced offenders, they have not had a trial, they are awaiting their trial.”
Indigenous offenders account for 24 per cent of all admissions to remand across the country — up from 19 per cent in 2005 and 2006, he said.
The population in federal penitentiaries has risen 14.6 per cent in the past 10 years — 12 per cent for men and 39 per cent for women. The federal justice department is predicting that if nothing changes, there will be an additional 1,000 inmates in federal custody in 10 years.
“If things just stay the way they are, given the rates, given the demographics, then the prediction is that there will be an increase in federal custody, unless measures are taken to either increase programs or undertake other measures to basically bend the curve,” Piragoff told MPs.
In some provinces, such as Ontario, it is taking longer for defendants to get bail, he said. Among the solutions the federal government is studying is giving front-line police officers more discretion to release someone pending his or her trial without having to turn to superiors or the crown to make the decision.
Prosecuting cases such as drunk driving is taking longer, particularly in provinces lsuch as Quebec, as stiffer consequences prompt more defendants to contest charges and lawyers to mount “novel defences” to challenge the law.
“Many impaired driving cases were put on hold pending certain key appellate decisions working their way up through the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada,” Piragoff told MPs. “There are a number of novel defences that people are raising tied to the Charter, so there’s a combination of factors with respect to what’s driving impaired driving rates.”
Some types of cases are dominating the caseload at courthouses, Piragoff told MPs.
“Administration of justice offences, such as failure to appear or breaching probation, as well as impaired driving and theft, account for over 40 per cent of the court caseload. Administration of justice offences as a proportion of all criminal court cases have seen an increase, up from 21 per cent in 2006 to 26 per cent in 2013-14.”
Echoing comments by federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who told the Canadian Bar Association’s mid-winter council meeting last month that it was time to rethink some administrative justice criminal offences and focus resources on more serious crimes, Piragoff said the Justice Department is working with the provinces on alternatives to some administration of justice offences.
“We are looking at what other countries are doing in handling administration of justice offences so that we can maybe avoid some of these, I would say, needless charges and convictions and people getting huge criminal records.”
Piragoff cited the example of one reservation where there was a high rate of failure-to-appear breaches because the closest courthouse was several kilometres away from the reservation and defendants couldn’t get to town. The court workers got a school bus and went around on court day, picked everyone up, and took them to court.
“People can get criminal records quite often, not because they’ve actually committed a crime such as theft. They may be in court for the first time for theft, but then they have a whole host of other breaches for things like breaching curfew, drinking alcohol, etc., and they then end up getting a long list of criminal offences.”
Piragoff’s testimony resonates with defence lawyers such as Trevor Brown, president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa and co-founder of the Ottawa law firm Greenspon Brown & Associates.
Brown, who welcomes the federal government’s plan to study alternatives in administrative justice cases and to give police officers more discretion to release offenders, says the current system is creating a “vicious circle” for some offenders who land back in court for violating bail conditions such as to not consume alcohol or drugs.
“They end up with these administration of justice offences, breaching those conditions of release and coming back before the courts, and every time they do so, it gets harder and harder for them to be released.”
The current reverse onus applied to bail hearings is making it even harder for some defendants to secure their release while waiting for their trials, and the more disadvantaged the defendant, the more they are likely to run afoul of administrative justice rules, Brown points out.
The result is that Ottawa’s criminal justice system is bogged down and it can take up to two weeks to get a bail hearing, he said.
“There’s no doubt that the provincial remand facilities — and in particular the remand facility in Ottawa —[are] overcrowded.
A large proportion of people in custody, certainly in Ottawa, are on remand. One of the biggest
issues we see is a high proportion of people who are mentally ill, drug-addicted, alcohol-addicted, aboriginal, [and] homeless who are crowding the bail system.