More than three years after its launch and with just six months left to reach its goals, the province’s Justice on Target program is facing inconsistent and sometimes negative results, complaints about funding, and concerns over alleged sweetheart deals, a review obtained by Law Times shows.
The project, launched by the Ministry of the Attorney General in June 2008, aims to decrease the average number of days and court appearances needed to complete a criminal case in Ontario by 30 per cent. The project, which has a deadline of June, compares current results against a baseline of 2007.
A post-implementation review took place at the request of the Justice on Target management committee last year. It looks at five Toronto-area courthouses and provides statistics about their successes and failures under the project. Law Times obtained a copy of the review through a freedom of information request to the ministry.
The statistics aren’t promising so far, according to the review. Only courts in Scarborough and Brampton, Ont., have seen a decrease in the average number of days and appearances to disposition for a criminal case between 2010 and 2011, the review found.
At the remaining courthouses — Etobicoke, Old City Hall, and College Park — the number of days to disposition has actually increased or the figures have remained largely stagnant. At College Park, for example, that figure jumped to 290 days in 2010 from 221 in 2007, an increase of 31 per cent.
Across the province, the results are more positive, said ministry spokesman Brendan Crawley, who noted a decrease in the number of appearances to disposition in criminal cases since 2007.
“In 2007, it took an average 9.2 appearances to complete a criminal charge in Ontario,” said Crawley. “Today, the provincial average is 8.5 appearances. For nearly 20 years, this measure was going up. Now it is going down. We know that the Justice on Target strategy is working.”
That number, however, represents a roughly eight-per-cent decrease, which is still well below the aggressive goals former attorney general Chris Bentley set in launching the program.
Bentley didn’t return calls to answer questions about the project he heralded with great fanfare when he launched it, while current Attorney General John Gerretsen was away on vacation last week and was unavailable to comment about his ministry’s progress with Justice on Target.
Nevertheless, the results have been positive at some of the courthouses studied in the review but they’re still far short of the program’s goals.
Prior to the project’s launch in Brampton in 2009, for example, the average number of days to disposition in criminal cases was 241 while the average number of appearances was 10.1. By December 2010, those figures had decreased to 239 and nine respectively.
In Scarborough, where the project began at the end of 2009, the average number of days to disposition was initially 254 and the average number of appearances was 12.7. As of December 2010, those numbers had decreased to 237 and 11 respectively.
Nevertheless, the review advises taking these figures with some skepticism given that while some courthouses showed improvements on a year-to-year basis, the numbers may actually be worse than the 2007 baseline.
But inconsistent figures aren’t the only problem with the program. According to the review, several members of the court, including judges, court service workers, defence counsel, and Crown attorneys, are skeptical of Justice on Target.
It notes, for example, that many stakeholders are concerned about a lack of direction from the project’s local leadership team, the absence of funding for Justice on Target in general, and communication about its goals and progress.
Toronto defence lawyer Daniel Brown has his own concerns about unintended negative effects from the program. “There are a few things going on behind the scenes in this,” he says.
“Greater emphasis is being put on pleading guilty from the onset, and while the number of appearances may seem to go down, really it’s leaving people to defend themselves who may not understand the extent of their rights and how to proceed in cases where they’re being asked to consider a guilty plea.”
The result, says Brown, is a “class of people who have pleaded guilty who didn’t need to have a criminal record.”
New drinking and driving rules also come into play, says Brown, who notes drivers accused of the offence are being offered lighter sentences if they plead guilty early on as part of an effort to ease hefty trial lists.
“Now they can plead guilty in the first 90 days and evade harsher punishment,” he notes. “In some cases, that is truly needed, but in others it just puts a significant emphasis on them pleading guilty when they may not need to.”
A focus group of Crown attorneys held at the Old City Hall courthouse in Toronto as part of the review also revealed concerns about impaired driving cases.
It noted they were confused about whether or not to offer favourable plea bargains as per the new legislation and Justice on Target.
“Crown focus group attendants indicated a clear sense of frustration with Justice on Target,” the review stated. “Some expressed a belief that they are being held responsible for achieving Justice on Target objectives, despite many factors being outside of their control.
In addition, many focus group attendees expressed confusion resulting from perceived mixed messages from the Ministry of the Attorney General.”
At the same time, Crowns across all five courthouses studied in the review said their main concern was a lack of funding and resources to support the project’s goals. A recurring complaint was about the need for additional staff.
Employees at the Crown’s office at College Park, for example, said they were concerned about staffing levels and being “pushed to their limits” under the project, according to the review.
“A focus group with assistant Crowns revealed that there are still challenges within the Crown’s office and that support for Justice on Target is not universal,” the review stated.
In addition to concerns over limited resources and increasing responsibilities under the project, the review noted Crowns felt changes under the program were placing a heavy burden on their already-overworked schedules.
The review also found skepticism about the project among judges. In Brampton, for example, judges were worried about the “unintentional consequences” of Justice on Target.
Crawley, however, said the project will ultimately help all justice participants use their resources more effectively in the long run.
“By resolving straightforward, non-complex cases faster, all justice participants — judiciary, defence, police, Crown — can use their resources more effectively to focus on serious and difficult cases and to better assist witnesses, victims, clients, and the public.”
Nevertheless, many court staff involved in the project have refused to implement its activities or have done so and later abandoned them due to concerns such as a lack of resources, according to the review. Judges at College Park, for example, were skeptical about the “fanfare” surrounding Justice on Target.
“Interviewees reported that judges at College Park have been very skeptical about Justice on Target,” the review noted.
“Some feel that the judges were awaiting signs of progress and change driven by the ministry to support what was viewed as a high amount of initial fanfare surrounding the initiative.
When progress was slow to come, the skepticism remained and participation in Justice on Target among judges was low.”
Similarly, although most local leaders were verbally supportive of the project, “several interviewees expressed concerns about the project’s targets, which they felt were politically imposed and potentially unattainable,” the review stated.
Despite these concerns, Crawley said Justice on Target is having a positive impact. “For the 12-month period of November 2010 to October 2011, 43 out of 60 sites, nearly three-quarters of all criminal courts in Ontario, successfully lowered the average number of appearances to disposition compared to before the strategy began,” he said.
Still, Brown says there need to be improvements before the people working at courthouses will begin to warm to the idea. “Right now, the project is really inconsistent,” he says. “There are some good results and some bad results and sometimes it does create a system that isn’t a practical reality.
For more, see "New stats show mixed record for Justice on Target" and "Defence counsel part of 'weak link' in Justice on Target: police," and "Program set expectations to high."
To see a map of the Justice on Target results, click here.