Ontario Court Justice David Fairgrieve thought it would be an easy fix. It turns out, it's a lot more complicated than he imagined.
In July 2009, the judge rendered his sentence in a case involving a man facing a raft of charges following a police chase near Toronto in February of that year. When the man pleaded guilty to three driving charges flowing from that chase, the Crown proceeded by way of summary conviction instead of indictment, unaware of the full extent of the man's criminal record.
It turned out the guilty man had 11 prior convictions dating back to 2007. But at the time of the guilty pleas, this information hadn't been entered in the Canadian Police Information Centre, the centralized criminal records database operated by the RCMP. The reason for this lapse was a backlog then estimated to run as long as 18 months.
Fairgrieve was understandably incensed, and imposed a sentence harsher than the joint submission from the prosecutor and the man's lawyer. He chided the Canadian Police Information Centre for "not fulfilling its mandate," but suggested the delay and backlog issues were clerical in nature, "and it appears that a data entry blitz of some kind, requiring only minor temporary funding, might easily solve the problem."
Flash forward to the Ontario Court in Kitchener last week, where Judge Elliott Allen found that if there was an easy fix to the backlog problem to be found in 2009, it hasn't come to fruition.
He, too, was confronted with a case where there was a great variance in the criminal record information to be found in the Canadian Police Information Centre database and the actual record of a man before him for sentencing. The information centre's data listed 2008 as the year of the man's last conviction. But diligent research by the Crown prosecutor and Waterloo Regional Police showed the man had racked up 12 more convictions since then.
The regional police say their local records are up to date. That is far from the case with the Canadian Police Information Centre, where the RCMP concedes there's backlog involving 415,000 offenders with some 1.5 million convictions that haven't yet been entered in the system.
This is staggering for prosecutors and judges across this country who have to gamble they have a complete picture of an accused individual's criminal record. But it can also be a huge problem for volunteer agencies and some businesses that are seeking criminal background checks on prospective employees and volunteers, checks that also rely on Canadian Police Information Centre data.
The federal Conservatives' shiny new crime bill will soon reach the implementation stage, but with this major lapse in criminal records files, the effectiveness of this legislation could be blunted. All police departments need the resources to bring and keep their records up to date and convey that information expeditiously to the RCMP. The Mounties, in turn, need the resources to input that data in a timely fashion.
Over to you, Ottawa. A judge drew public attention to this very real problem three years ago. How much longer will it take you to fix it?