Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Justice needs funding for other parts, too

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Criminals are bad.

Those three words are all you need to understand the NDP government's entire criminal-justice policy. At a time when their popularity is at historic lows -- polling behind the Manitoba Liberal Party in some places -- they've retreated to a familiar and comfortable policy position: tough on crime.

The problem is that like Stephen Harper, who they've gone on record agreeing with in this area, Justice Minister Andrew Swan, Premier Greg Selinger and the NDP have a problem understanding tough on crime means more than just locking more people up.

The NDP has consistently taken wild leaps to the 'right' on the justice file. Swan was one of the first provincial politicians in Canada to endorse the omnibus 'tough on crime' Bill C-10, proposed and passed by the Harper Conservatives in 2012. This was the bill that introduced stricter mandatory minimum sentences, ended house arrest for many minor crimes and caused young offenders to spend more time in custody.

And they put their money where their pen is.

Over the last five years, according to my calculations, the NDP has increased the salary budget for the prosecutions division of Manitoba Justice by 46 per cent. In that same period, Legal Aid Manitoba saw its salary budget rise only 16 per cent. That means while the government continues to hire more prosecutors, including 10 just announced this past Friday, legal aid stagnates.

Private bar defence lawyers working for legal aid clients get paid a fraction of what they would otherwise get paid, creating little incentive for them to participate in the program, and legal aid staff lawyers are outrageously overworked and under-supported. Legal Aid Manitoba's budget is so tight, staff lawyers must use free alternatives to the standard Microsoft Word.

It is this incredible disparity that makes the NDP's justification for hiring new Crown attorneys -- improving access to justice -- laughable.

Our justice system works because those accused of crimes are presumed innocent. But as our governments continue to stack the deck against them, the system becomes increasingly fragile. The courts will slow down beyond their already snail-like pace as more unrepresented accused are forced to defend themselves. These will often be people who work a full-time minimum-wage job. Because of the chronic and completely avoidable underfunding of legal aid, even some people living below the poverty line will be turned down for legal aid.

You don't have to sympathize with those accused of crimes, and you don't need to care about how they're treated in Manitoba's overcrowded jails and remand facilities (although you should).

But if you were to talk to nearly any lawyer practising criminal law in Manitoba, be they prosecution or defence, they would likely agree the system is unbalanced.

Disproportionate emphasis on hiring ever more Crown attorneys and police officers, while ignoring legal aid, corrections officers and the sheriffs who make the system run, could be described as tough on crime only if you subscribe to the Stephen Harper School of Evidence-Based Decision Making.

Corey Shefman is a Winnipeg lawyer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 29, 2014 A9

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