Our criminal justice system is in major need of reform in multiple areas, requiring substantial work by all the levels of government, writes Perrin and Audas in the Toronto Sun.

By Benjamin Perrin and Richard Audas, March 5, 2018

If you could scrap our criminal justice system and start from scratch, what would it look like? This wasn’t a question asked in an ivory tower somewhere. It’s striking that it was asked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government recently in a public consultation on transforming the criminal justice system. That’s how serious the mounting challenges facing our justice system are seen by some.

Canada’s criminal justice system is facing a litany of challenges including significant under-reporting of crime by victims, delays and inefficiencies, rising costs, and grave concerns about the treatment of Indigenous people — both as victims and offenders. But, as our second annual criminal justice report card with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute has found, it’s not all bad news.

Using Statistics Canada data and quantitative statistical methods, we again assessed each province and territory’s criminal justice system based on five major objectives: public safety, support for victims, costs and resources, fairness and access to justice, and efficiency. We also added a national overview this year to track trends across the country over time.

Nationally, there have been notable improvements in crime rates. The violent crime rate per capita declined by approximately 12.5% between 2012-2016. A major driver of this is understood to be demographics, related to an aging population. There are now fewer police officers required per capita, and there have been increases in legal aid expenditures per crime, which supports access to justice.

On the other hand, some problems have only gotten worse. The weighted non-violent crime clearance rate (which is a measure of the proportion of crimes that are solved) has steadily declined to 29.3% in 2016. The incidents of breach of probation per 1,000 crimes have risen. The cost of corrections per capita has also gone up.

Alarmingly, the disproportionate number of Indigenous people sent to prison has continued unabated. In 2016, the ratio of Aboriginal people in total custodial admissions as a proportion of the Aboriginal population was 6.2. The problem is particularly acute in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Indeed, much like the real estate market, to really understand what is going on requires drilling down from national statistics to get closer to the ground. At the provincial/territorial level, Ontario was the most-improved jurisdiction overall – its ranking improved dramatically to 4th place (from 7th place), due to relative improvements in public safety, and fairness and access to justice.

However, there are serious issues with efficiency in Ontario’s justice system. It has the worst record in Canada for the proportion of charges stayed or withdrawn (43.4%), compared with a mere 7.4%  in neighbouring Quebec. Ontario also has one of the highest numbers of accused persons on remand (in jail awaiting trial) per 1,000 crimes in the entire country.

Both Quebec and British Columbia had significant declines in their overall rankings. Quebec’s ranking declined to 6th place (from 4th place), owing to a relative decline in fairness and access to justice in the province.

British Columbia’s ranking declined to 10th place (from 8th place), due to a relative decline in public safety, and fairness and access to justice in the province. BC received failing grades for its weighted clearance rates for violent crime (only 51.7% of violent crimes were resolved by police) and non-violent crime (a mere 20.4 percent).

Once again, Manitoba was the worst performing province and the Yukon was the worst performing territory. In responding to our inaugural report card on the criminal justice system, Manitoba promised to launch a review of its justice system while the Yukon criticized the way it was being assessed. Reforms take time to achieve results and we hope that underperforming jurisdictions will take these efforts seriously.

Without leadership, the serious problems with our criminal justice system will not resolve themselves. In fact, the trend is that they typically only get worse as time goes on if nothing is done. Our criminal justice system is in major need of reform in multiple areas, requiring substantial work by all the levels of government.

Benjamin Perrin is a law professor at the University of British Columbia and a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Dr. Richard Audas is a health statistics and economics professor at Memorial University.

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