Bail reform will help, but not solve, ‘complex’ rising crime issue: minister
Canada’s justice minister is defending the government’s new bail reform legislation against criticism it doesn’t go far enough or may fail a Charter challenge, saying the “targeted” measure addresses just one of the many factors behind rising crime.
Speaking to Mercedes Stephenson in an interview that aired Sunday on The West Block, David Lametti specifically pushed back against criticism from Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who has said the reforms were necessary due to what he called the Liberals’ “catch and release” policies.
“Criminal justice policy doesn’t devolve down to a simple, silly slogan as Mr. Poilievre seems to want to lead people to believe,” he said.
“This is a complex problem, and it goes to a number of different factors, (such as) society coming out of a very, very unprecedented pandemic which brought fault lines of mental health and other challenges to the fore. And so we’re dealing with all of that.”
The legislation tabled last week introduces reverse-onus bail conditions for people charged with serious violent offences involving a weapon, in cases where the person was convicted of a similar violent offence within the past five years.
It will also add some firearms offences to existing reverse-onus provisions, and expand the provision of that measure in cases where the alleged crimes involve intimate partner violence.
While the burden of proof usually rests on prosecutors to convince judges why offenders should stay behind bars, a reverse onus means that in these kinds of cases, the offender will now be the one who has to prove in court why they should be released on bail.
The bill also directs judges and justices of the peace to consider the accused’s history of violence and the impact on the community “as a general matter” when considering bail, Lametti said.
The proposed changes to the Criminal Code come amid pressure from the provinces and territories to reduce the number of repeat violent offenders who are granted bail. Premiers had unanimously asked the government to expand the reverse-onus provisions.
Those premiers have said they welcomed the legislation, while groups like the National Police Federation have called it a good first step.
But Poilievre said the reforms don’t go far enough, and is promising to not only deny violent repeat offenders bail entirely if he’s elected prime minister but also roll back the Liberals’ original justice reform bill that addressed bail conditions, known as Bill C-75.
Conservatives argue that bill, which passed in 2019, made it easier to access bail for violent offenders. Lametti said those claims are misleading.
“That’s just not true,” he said.
“The parts of Bill C-75 where it made it easier to get bail were not for violent offenses. They were for administration of justice offences like missing a bail hearing and that kind of thing. So it isn’t a very accurate characterization.”
Lametti said Bill C-75 brought the Criminal Code in line with a 1992 Supreme Court decision, which has been upheld as precedent, that bail cannot be denied without “just cause.”
It also codified a “principle of restraint,” affirmed in a 2017 Supreme Court case, that emphasized the release of detainees at the “earliest reasonable opportunity” and “on the least onerous conditions,” based on the circumstances of the case, while setting “reasonable” bail conditions.
While some legal experts have said the earlier decision enshrining bail as a constitutional right may override the proposed reforms, the attorney general said he’s “very confident” the legislation will stand up to a Charter challenge in court.
“We worked within that tight space of Charter possibility or muster, if you will, that it has to pass muster under the Charter,” he said. “We think we’ve done that by targeting very specific circumstances where we will reverse the onus.
“We’ve been told again and again and again by provinces and police forces that it is a small group of people who are repeatedly offending in a violent manner. That’s what we’re targeting. And so because it’s narrow, we feel we pass muster under the Charter.”
That narrow framework will also prevent the reforms from disproportionately targeting Indigenous and other racialized offenders, he said.
“By keeping this narrow — by keeping this to a very small number of offenders who are accused of repeat violent offenses with weapons — we minimize the potential impact that this might have on overrepresentation, or on just discrimination generally against vulnerable groups,” he said.
Calls for bail reform have accelerated this year after Const. Greg Pierzchala of the Ontario Provincial Police was killed while on duty in late December.
Court documents showed one of the two people facing a first-degree murder charge in his death, Randall McKenzie, was initially denied bail in a separate case involving assault and weapons charges but was released after a review.
Nine other police officers have been killed in the line of duty across Canada since September. OPP Sgt. Eric Mueller was shot and killed earlier this month.
In recent months there have been a number of high-profile cases of fatal attacks that have put additional pressure on provincial and federal governments to address violent crime. Those include the stabbing deaths of a woman and her daughter in Edmonton earlier this month and the fatal stabbing of a teenager aboard a bus in Surrey, B.C., in April.
The StatsCanada index measuring the severity of crime in the country shows the rate of violent crime has dropped six per cent over the past 10 years and more than 30 per cent over the last 20 years.
But the rate has crept up, according to that data, almost every year since the Liberals came into power, and it is higher now than it was in 2015 when they first formed government.
Violent crime is the highest in Prairie provinces.
—With files from the Canadian Press
by Global News