June 24, 2018

Winnipeg
22° C, Partly cloudy

Full Forecast

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

Criminal justice reform proposals draw mixed reviews

Manitoba 'spearheaded' some proposed federal reforms: justice minister

Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson

Reforms to the criminal justice system could have a distinct effect on Manitoba, which has some of the highest crime and incarceration rates in the country, and a higher proportion of Indigenous inmates and domestic-violence cases.

But the proposed changes, announced this spring and undergoing debate in the House of Commons, don’t necessarily mean fewer offenders will be locked up as the federal and provincial governments try to deal with overcrowded prisons and jails that disproportionately house Indigenous people.

The federal government has broadened its definition of domestic violence and toughened penalties for those crimes, while raising maximum penalties for all minor offences in the Criminal Code.

Legislative changes to bail rules would mean judges have to consider an Indigenous accused’s background before deciding whether to release them, similar to the way such factors are considered at the sentencing stage. Other changes would make it more difficult for a repeat domestic-violence offender to be released on bail, and would toughen domestic-violence sentences.

Subscribers Log in below to continue reading,
not a subscriber? Create an account to start a 60 day free trial.

Log in Create your account

Your free trial has come to an end.

We hope you have enjoyed your trial! To continue reading, we recommend our Read Now Pay Later membership. Simply add a form of payment and pay only 27¢ per article.

For unlimited access to the best local, national, and international news and much more, try an All Access Digital subscription:

Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

Reforms to the criminal justice system could have a distinct effect on Manitoba, which has some of the highest crime and incarceration rates in the country, and a higher proportion of Indigenous inmates and domestic-violence cases.

But the proposed changes, announced this spring and undergoing debate in the House of Commons, don’t necessarily mean fewer offenders will be locked up as the federal and provincial governments try to deal with overcrowded prisons and jails that disproportionately house Indigenous people.

The federal government has broadened its definition of domestic violence and toughened penalties for those crimes, while raising maximum penalties for all minor offences in the Criminal Code.

Legislative changes to bail rules would mean judges have to consider an Indigenous accused’s background before deciding whether to release them, similar to the way such factors are considered at the sentencing stage. Other changes would make it more difficult for a repeat domestic-violence offender to be released on bail, and would toughen domestic-violence sentences.

The feds’ stricter stance on domestic violence has drawn praise both from Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative justice minister and the NDP justice critic, as well as some federal opposition MPs who have otherwise denounced the omnibus bill.

"A lot of these ideas that have come forward have been from the provinces, and we’re happy to see that the federal government is listening and moving in that direction to make some of these changes. And this would certainly be one of those," Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said of the reverse-bail onus and increased maximum penalties for domestic-violence offenders.

"I think also with bail reform, it provides more flexibility. The legislation provides more flexibility within the system and gives better guidance, I think, to police officers. It will allow them to impose more appropriate and less onerous conditions on the accused," Stefanson said in an interview after the proposed reforms were announced.

University of Winnipeg criminologist Michael Weinrath said the proposed changes may not reduce the number of inmates in custody, particularly given Manitoba’s high rate of domestic-violence cases, but he suggested there is potential with bail reforms and changes to how court conditions can be imposed on people released on bail.

"This is likely the legislative change that will have the greatest effect, but how it is implemented is key," Weinrath wrote in an email. "There appears to be an effort to use more police, judicial and Crown discretion in administering bail conditions, but in my opinion, there should be fewer conditions in the first place. Once a person is arrested and in custody, then it is already late for the judge to make a decision. Fewer curfews, abstain alcohol requirements and similar conditions for things that are not really crimes would be a better practice to my mind."

Overall, the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba sees the proposed reforms as a "net negative" for the justice system.

Lawyer Scott Newman

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Lawyer Scott Newman

"They’re going to increase delays, they’re going to see more people in custody and there’s a greater risk of wrongful convictions," association spokesman Scott Newman said.

Stefanson said many of the Criminal Code changes proposed in the omnibus legislation, Bill C-75, are in line with her government’s own strategy to reform the criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to speeding up the court process.

Two changes in particular were "spearheaded" by Manitoba, Stefanson said: allowing police officers to submit evidence to court in written form rather than requiring them to testify in every case, and restricting the use of preliminary inquiries. The province, along with Manitoba’s chief judges, wanted to start a pilot project that would eliminate pre-trial hearings and replace them with an out-of-court discovery process. Under the federal bill, preliminary inquiries would only happen in the most serious criminal cases in which the accused faces life in prison.

In 1991, Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry recommended abolishing preliminary hearings. The report concluded their purpose as a way to find out whether there’s enough evidence for the case to go to trial had "virtually disappeared" over time.

"So this is not new. But it is something that we have spearheaded from our province and brought forward because we believe it’s in the best interest of victims," Stefanson said. "We don’t believe that victims should be revictimized by having to go through testifying at preliminary inquiries as well as at trial. So we think that this is a good move on the part of the federal government in listening to the provinces on this issue."

The provincial strategy, announced three weeks before the federal government introduced its legislation, aims to reduce overcrowding in provincial jails, where about 74 per cent of inmates are Indigenous. Stefanson said the province will target resources to deal with the most serious crimes and focus on restorative-justice measures. The province has done a review of restorative-justice programs it invests in and is looking at a "better alignment of resources" rather than budget cuts, Stefanson said.

It’s unclear how the province plans to rely more heavily on restorative-justice agencies when so many of them have lacked funding, staff and support, NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine said.

At times, Fontaine said, Manitobans have looked upon restorative justice as "this magical thing that can just happen out of the good graces of people’s hearts without the resources."

"It has long-lasting transformative effects when we invest in it, but we can’t expect people to just execute restorative justice on a volunteer basis with no office space, no infrastructure, no travel dollars," she said. "I feel like this current government doesn’t really understand what restorative justice is. You have to invest in it."

Bill C-75 was debated at second reading two weeks ago and is expected to be voted on after an additional five hours of debate. Conservative MPs, including Portage-Lisgar’s Candice Bergen, have criticized the proposed reforms as "watering down" principles of the justice system and failing to support victims’ rights.

"This legislation is a direct insult to victims of crime in Canada and sends the wrong message to law-abiding Canadians," Bergen wrote in an op-ed in the Portage Daily Graphic on May 31.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca ­­­­­Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

Read full biography

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

History

Updated on Monday, June 11, 2018 at 9:50 AM CDT: Changes subheadline

9:53 AM: Adds photos

11:59 AM: Corrects time reference, corrects spelling of Colten Boushie’s name

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective January 2015.