B.C.’s Attorney-General Niki Sharma said changes to the bail system could come as early as this spring.
She and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth took part in an emergency meeting last week with their federal counterparts to try and tackle the issue of repeat violent offenders.
Sharma said Monday (March 13) that federal Justice Minister David Lametti has agreed to move quickly on reforming parts of the Criminal Code.
“This will include both legislative and non-legislative changes, so we can hold repeat violent offenders and people who commit serious offences with firearms and other dangerous weapons to account.”
Sharma said B.C. lobbied the federal government for the broadest possible interpretation of repeat violent offenders with or without a weapon “to help stem the tide” of attacks by random strangers.
She said people who make their communities unsafe should be held in jail unless there is a very good reason to release them before trial.
Farnworth added Monday that the provincial correctional system is capable of handling additional detentions.
The current writing of the Criminal Code puts the on onus on prosecutors to prove why an accused person should be held in custody. Accused people only have to prove why they should be allowed bail if their charge is particularly serious. This includes murder or attempted murder, weapons and bodily harm offences, and offences committed while a person is out on bail for a different charge.
Recent Supreme Court rulings in 2015, 2017 and 2020 have also found that “the release of accused persons is the cardinal rule and detention, the exception” and that “release on bail at the earliest reasonable opportunity with minimal conditions is the default position” for most alleged crimes.
Many B.C. municipalities and businesses have argued this leaves too much room for repeat offenders who commit non-violent property crimes to be regularly released.
Defenders of the current bail system say keeping people in prison before it’s been proven whether they committed a crime encroaches on their freedoms, though, and can have a serious impact on their ability to hold down a job, among other things.
Studies have also shown Indigenous and racialized people are over-incarcerated in Canada, drawing concern from some that stricter bail laws will only worsen the trend. A 2019 federal report found growing concern among academics, community organizations and court workers that Canada’s bail system was becoming “overly punitive” and was leading to the “further criminalization of vulnerable populations.”
Sharma said Monday that B.C. is committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen.
Sharma said beyond possible Criminal Code changes, the province is also targeting the problem by increasing the number of police officers, funding mental health supports and supporting community business groups.
Lametti said while bail is a constitutional right, it is not an absolute one.
“Our laws are clear that bail can be denied, when there is just cause, when it is necessary for the safety of the public or to maintain the public’s confidence in the administration of justice.”
Federal officials have been facing demands for tougher bail laws for years now – and they appear to be on the way.
Changes to Canada’s bail system were most recently made in 2019, after experts found existing laws unnecessarily complex, redundant and responsible for delays in the administration of justice, according to a federal background report.