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This article was published 21/9/2016 (2111 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
High violent-crime rates, skyrocketing public safety costs, slow court processes and "dismal" public perception of police have led to Manitoba’s justice system being ranked the worst among all other provinces, according to a public policy think-tank’s new report card.
The report, a first-of-its-kind measure of the administration of justice across Canada, was released Wednesday by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. It ranks Manitoba’s criminal-justice system as the second-worst in the country, better only than the Yukon, and gives it an overall C grade based on the most recent Statistics Canada data available in five categories.
The report's authors are calling on the provincial government to lead a complete review of the justice system to address what they see as serious problems with efficiency, fairness and access to justice, the disproportionate number of indigenous inmates and those in pretrial custody, and the high cost of policing and corrections in Manitoba.
"I think it is a real wakeup call. We hope that this report isn’t about shaming provinces that under-perform. It’s about highlighting that and trying to see that there are some changes that occur because of it," said report co-author Benjamin Perrin, a University of British Columbia law professor.
"The bigger picture is that the justice system as a whole is failing to do its job."
Manitoba was graded in five categories for the report card: public safety (C+), fairness and access (C+), support for victims (C), efficiency (C) and cost and resources (D), falling well behind highest-ranked P.E.I. and the other Atlantic provinces, which had more efficient justice systems overall, once the data were adjusted for population size.
"We’re calling for a top-to-bottom review of the justice system in Manitoba. It needs to involve the provincial government leading this effort, but it’s not going to work unless it has the support of all the players — we’re talking from the chief justice of Manitoba on down. The judiciary, the heads of the prosecution services, the chiefs of police and the RCMP, aboriginal groups need to be involved in the community and victim services groups (as well)," Perrin said.
The Progressive Conservative provincial government has not committed to such a review, and placed blame on the previous NDP government for the report’s "concerning" findings.
The report shows "there is much work that needs to be done," Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said in an emailed statement. "After 17 years of neglect by the previous government, Manitoba Justice faces significant fiscal and administrative challenges. Our government has begun the hard work required to repair the damage and is committed to ensuring that Manitobans have timely, effective and efficient access to justice."
Some of the factors that contributed to Manitoba’s low ranking, including spending more money on policing and cracking down on administrative court-condition breaches, were meant to address high crime rates in the province, said NDP justice critic and former justice minister Andrew Swan. He pointed out western provinces with higher crime rates and more northern geographical area were more likely to get lower scores in this report.
"Manitoba’s an expensive province to run a justice system," he said, adding the data doesn’t take into account travel costs for police, court staff and probation officers to get in and out of remote communities.
Manitoba spends more on policing and corrections per capita than any other province, the report shows. The average per capita cost of public safety in Manitoba — as measured by Statistics Canada — is $599, while the average per capita cost of corrections is $144. That’s compared with $104 in Saskatchewan and $51 in Alberta.
"It does show that Manitoba invests more money in policing per capita than any other province. I’m actually not ashamed of that. We knew in government that we needed to have more police out there doing their job. We also decided that we would take a very strong approach to bail and a very strong approach on people who breach probation," Swan said. "Yes, it does clog up the court, but at the same time, it provides public safety. What I expect the new government to do is to continue working as we did with judges, with Crown attorneys, with police, to make sure that the probation conditions make sense for people — you don’t want conditions that are going to set people up to fail, but you do want conditions that keep people safe."
Swan said he’ll be pushing the government to invest in drug-treatment and mental-health courts and focus on restorative justice measures to relieve pressure on the criminal justice system.
The average criminal case length in Manitoba is about 223 days, compared with 63 days in P.E.I. About 30 per cent of criminal charges laid in Manitoba are stayed or withdrawn, plugging up the system, though not as badly as in Ontario, where charges were ultimately thrown out in more than 40 per cent of cases.
There are more people in custody awaiting trial in Manitoba than anywhere else in Canada — an average of 125 people per 1,000 crimes, and indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated in Manitoba.
All of these concerns "vastly outweigh" the positives in the province's justice system, Perrin said, pointing out the data show police in Manitoba work hard — with higher than average case-clearance rates for violent and non-violent crime and more charges laid per officer, as well as more referrals to victim services.
"The data really speaks for itself, and we were quite surprised to find how remarkably different the justice system is across the country. We often hear that crime rates are going down nationally and that’s true, but it’s not the case that each province and territory is equally safe. And it’s not the case that justice is equally efficient," Perrin said.
The data are not perfect. Statistics Canada doesn't track recidivism rates, making it difficult to tell whether justice systems in Canada are successful in stopping offenders from committing more crimes. There are also gaps in certain data for particular provinces and territories — Alberta, for example, stopped tracking its proportion of aboriginal inmates four years ago, Perrin said.
He said he hopes the report card will lead to improved data collection across the country, and policy reform in Manitoba in particular.
"This should not be taken as a criticism of the people doing this work, but it should hopefully be something that they can then stand up and say, look, more needs to be done and we need to do a better job," he said.
The report casts too harsh a light on Manitoba’s justice system, said University of Winnipeg criminal-justice professor Michael Weinrath, who said its use of the data to draw comparisons between provinces is "questionable," especially since the lowest-ranked provinces and territories have higher crime rates.
"We have a lot of police officers in Manitoba because we have a lot of violent crime. We have a lot of people locked up in Manitoba because we have a lot of violent crime. So some of the things that they’re talking about, I think, go beyond what you can expect from the justice system," Weinrath said.
But he said the report raises important questions about how the province’s justice system should measure its progress.
"Maybe we should be spending money in a different way, because we’re disproportionately locking up a lot of indigenous people. The way the justice system has been going in Manitoba the last few years — which is, hire more police, oppose bail, arrest everyone that we can who is violating some sort of a court order — all that’s doing is really driving the number of people in custody up. It’s not doing anything for improving the situation of our indigenous peoples," Weinrath said.
Read the full report here.
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.