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Won’t apologize for comments

|Written By Jennifer McPhee

John Tory won’t apologize to the province’s Crowns for what they say are “misinformed” comments about the role of prosecutors, and “misleading” campaign statements including what the Progressive Conservative party leader called a “catch-and-release” justice system.

‘Catch and release works well when you are fishing,’ says John Tory.

James Chaffe, president of the Ontario Crown Attorneys’ Association, says in a press release that Tory was “unfair” and “insulting” to the province’s 900 Crown attorneys in his statements, and he owes them a public apology. In a letter to Tory, Chaffe also asked for a meeting, but received no response.

The apology won’t be coming, confirms Ontario PC party spokesperson Mike Van Soelen. “Certainly, Mr. Tory stands by his remarks,” he tells Law Times.

Tory’s refusal to apologize is “irresponsible,” says Ontario Liberal spokesperson Ben Chin. “He owes them an apology, they’ve asked for one. He is running and hiding from his own comments,” he says.

 “Unfortunately, the current debate surrounding justice issues has so far been framed by statements that cause Crown attorneys great concern,” says Chaffe in his letter to Tory. “For example, comments that suggest Crown attorney education is little more than a golf/spa junket on the public purse; that Crowns are part of unconscionable plea bargains; that Crowns are part of a ‘catch-and-release’ justice system.

These misconceptions are inaccurate and do not advance serious discourse on the real challenges to our criminal justice system.

They are comments that cry out for the OCAA to come to the defence of Crown attorneys’ professional reputations and public confidence of their role in the criminal justice system . . . .”

Tory claimed that 70 per cent of people charged with homicide last year in Toronto were out on bail or probation at the time of their arrest.

“Catch and release works well when you are fishing,” said Tory. “It doesn’t work well when you are dealing with violent offenders.

“It’s outrageous that so many of these crimes were preventable,” he added.

Chaffe did not respond to interview requests from Law Times, but in his release says, “Crown attorneys are among the hardest-working public servants in Ontario. They must, as quasi-judicial officers of the court, decide the Crown position on the interim release of an alleged offender based one evidence and the law.

“When the facts of a case indicate danger to the public, they seek the detention of the accused. We regularly seek the detention of the accused in cases that involve violence and particularly when a gun is involved. To say otherwise is false. We do not engage in catch and release.”

Chin tells Law Times that Tory “got his math wrong” and says the statistic he uses actually comes from a quote made by a police officer in a newspaper story. In the article, the officer included people who were not convicted of their second offence, he says.

But Van Soelen says the source is a Toronto Police Services Board report referenced in another newspaper article.

Chin says it’s important for the public to realize that these violent offenders were all charged with federal crimes under federal law, and that both Crown attorneys and judges are working with federal law provisions.

“Until those things change, there isn’t much that a provincial government can do. It’s not actually a provincial issue,” says Chin.

The Ontario government has asked Ottawa to create reverse-onus provisions in the Criminal Code for gun-crime cases.

Last November, Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced an act to amend the Criminal Code that implements reverse onus in bail hearings for gun-related crimes. It received third reading in the House of Commons and first reading in the Senate on June 5.

Chin says the provincial government changed its Crown manual earlier this year, so that Crowns are required to fight bail in any situation involving gun-related crimes.

The Conservatives are trying to “whip up a frenzy around statistics that are misleading about why it is happening,” says Chin.

Van Soelen calls Chin’s argument, “the excuse they use all the time.

“The reality is that the McGuinty government has given very weak direction to Crown attorneys in this regard,” he says.

“Bail conditions and broken bail bonds are often the first things to get negotiated away, which is something we have said, very strongly, should not be happening because when they come up before a judge, those charges aren’t registered and the judges don’t have the information they need to make appropriate decisions in court.”

PC justice critic Christine Elliott says changing federal law is “part of it,” but adds there’s a lot more that the Ontario government could do.

“I’m sure that John Tory did not mean to say anything disparaging as far as Crown attorneys are concerned,” she says.

She adds that, “We are certainly aware of how hard [prosecutors] work, and the demands that are placed on them, and the fact that there are circumstances where certain agreements are appropriate,” she says. “But, I think the fact that we are looking at a statistic where 70 per cent of repeat offences are being committed by people who are out on bail or probation . . . I think that means that we have to take a closer look at it, and examine some of the policies.”

Tory has also pledged to pursue bail, parole, and probation violators, and says he will not allow court-order violations to be “plea-bargained away” for any offence that includes guns, sexual assault, or violence.

“For those who breach bail, we will set a new standard, going after every penny, every time when bail is breached,” he says.

Referring to Tory’s previous comments about “unconscionable plea bargains,” Chaffe says Tory is creating the perception that any plea bargain is unjust and that getting rid of plea negotiations would create a safer community. “Getting rid of plea negotiations would cripple our justice system,” says Chaffe in the OCAA release.

“Crowns do not negotiate pleas in a vacuum. When we negotiate a plea, our overriding concern is the protection of the public. To say otherwise is false and insulting to Crown attorneys,” he says.

Other Conservative promises include ordering automatic inquests whenever someone on bail, probation, or parole causes a death. They’ve also pledged to create a “rewards for unsolved crimes” program that would give police forces up to $50,000 per government-approved case to reward informants.

“Police agencies across the province will be able to submit unsolved cases into the program involving murder, missing persons, rape, and sexual assault,” says Tory.

In return for the cash rewards, informants would be required to provide their names and contact information, and to potentially testify in court, says Tory.

But Chin calls the cash rewards program a “political gimmick that capitalizes on tragedy.”

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