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Manitoba’s criminal justice system isn’t working, and the status quo is no longer an option, the provincial justice minister says.

"We have the highest incarceration rates in Canada. We have among the highest violent-crimes rates in Canada. This didn’t happen overnight. This happened over many, many years of moving in this direction," Heather Stefanson said Friday, as she unveiled the government’s new modernization strategy. "So, we’re taking a different approach. We’re taking a proactive approach. This is about creating safer communities. It’s about creating better access to justice."

She said the new strategy is a "four-pronged approach," emphasizing crime prevention, speeding up the court system, increased use of restorative justice and the responsible reintegration of offenders back into communities.

Those efforts will see the province attempt to address court backlogs by focusing on the most serious cases first, as well as increased reliance on restorative justice methods for less serious offences.

In addition, the province also will partner with law enforcement in an effort to prevent crime through strategic intervention and increased use of community mobilization programs.

The strategy is a result of an internal review the province has been conducting since 2016, and which remains ongoing.

Friday’s announcement in Winnipeg comes on the heels of the release of the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s annual report card, which — for the second year in a row — found Manitoba’s justice system to be the worst of all provinces.

The think tank’s report painted a grim picture of justice in Manitoba, highlighting costly and cumbersome courts, low public perception of police, overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in prison and metrics for "fairness" and "access to justice" on the decline.

Stefanson admitted even with the new strategy, the province is fighting an uphill battle and change should not be expected overnight.

When asked how soon tangible improvement will be seen, the minister said: "I hope right away, but it’s not going to be. It took us a long time to get here, and we need to give us some time to implement the programs."

In an effort to stay accountable to the public, Stefanson said, the province will report annually on key performance indicators, beginning next year.

“They talk about wanting to see more restorative justice, but it takes resources. We didn’t see any of those numbers.” — NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine

In response, NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine said the plan sounds great — except there are no specifics, no staff and no resources.

"There was no poverty-reduction plan," which should be at the heart of any strategy to reduce incarceration, and it seems to lack efforts at reducing methamphetamine addiction, Fontaine told reporters.

"They talk about wanting to see more restorative justice, but it takes resources. We didn’t see any of those numbers."

She said she doesn’t have much faith the promised improvements will be realized.

The comments were largely echoed by Corey Shefman, a Manitoba-trained, Toronto-based human rights lawyer, who said while the province’s new strategy sounds nice, it lacks substance.

"It’s not that comprehensive. They’ve identified the problems — well, some of them anyway — but they really haven’t given any concrete solutions. There’s no substance in here. What we’re missing in this document is a real plan for fixing the problems," Shefman said.

"I also find their emphasis on restorative justice ironic given that the government recently slashed considerable amounts of funding from some of the province’s most respected restorative justice programs."

Shefman believes there are concrete steps the province can take to immediately begin addressing some of the problems facing the criminal justice system.

He said he would like to see the minister move to increase funding to restorative justice programs, produce written and public policies on when bail should — and should not — be opposed, as well eliminate probationary conditions that criminalize non-criminal behaviour.

"Restorative justice is a neat buzz word," Shefman said.

"It’s been a great tool for governments to use to say they’re doing things differently, and sometimes they do. But often it’s just used as a shield by governments."

— with files from Nick Martin


Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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