Is Alberta's justice system at a breaking point?

Alberta Prime Time - Discussing the latest in crime topics are Greg Dunn a Calgary Criminal Defence lawyer and Kevin Martin with Postmedia Network.

Alberta Prime Time | Is Alberta's justice system at a breaking point?

MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2017

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Michael: Is Alberta’s justice system at a breaking point?

Chris: He pulled out a box cutter and started running towards me to try to scare me and that’s when I got in my car. And then right when I locked my door, yeah, he tried to get in. I proceeded to back out of the stall and he tried to smash my windows out with a tire iron.

Michael: That was an incident that resulted in charges of assault with a weapon , threats and intimidation, all of which were stayed last week due to what the Alberta Crown Attorneys Association calls a shortage of prosecutors over the last two months more than 200 criminal charges have been stayed in Alberta. Its a situation being cited as an example of how jurisdictions are struggling to keep up with the Supreme Court of Canada ruling R. vs. Jordan that set new time limits for criminal trials. Alberta’s Justice minister says the government is currently recruiting as many as 16 prosecutors in the Edmonton and Northern Alberta region - that’s in addition to the 28 added between 2009 and 2010. Greg, you have a front row seat on the situation playing out here, is it as simple as the justice system in our province reaching a boiling point?

Greg: Well, look, we’ve been talking about this case on these programs and on other programs, talking about this issue, probably about the last five years and prosecutors and judges, defence lawyers, had been making comments that the justice system is at a breaking point , and it is. And it’s much more complicated than simply not having enough prosecutors and I understand that that is one facet. And the prosecutors that they are looking at hiring are people that are just basically replacing what has been attrition and they don’t have any new prosecutors. But if you look the overall system, really what we’ve got ourselves into is a perfect storm with respect to a shortage of judicial resources. I just have some stats here I brought, Michael. In Calgary in 2006 until today we added a quarter of a million people. In 2015, due to the downturn we had, we had a 30% increase in crime levels. We have a situation in which prosecutors, and this falls onto their shoulders to some extent, have a more limited ability with respect to discretion and respect of doing deals. We have a reduce in legal aid funding that has increased the amount of ‘self-reps’ in the system that takes up additional judicial resources and we’ve got a shortage of judges. So, on every front. We are having a chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system and now the chickens have come back to roost and we are seeing, we are leaving ourselves in quite a situation in terms of now what we are going to be doing is getting stays and the public is going to see and they are really going to feel the effects of these funding shortfalls.

Michael: Okay, so Kevin, what do you make of the provinces’ response so far?

Kevin: Well, this so-called triage system has basically been created to identify which cases they feel are hopelessly going to be stayed if they go before a judge or cases that can be stayed to make room for more important cases. I think the provinces reaction so far has been appropriate in terms of setting up a system to at least make sure the most serious cases and ones that won’t get thrown out by judges are the ones that are being prosecuted and that we don’t run the risk of having major major crimes, cases where people are charged with murder and rape and bank robberies and having those cases thrown own because more minor cases have slowed up their process’ through the system.

Michael: Kevin, some jurisdictions are dropping preliminary hearings, is that something we should be considering here in Alberta. I don’t know that that would really help, especially here in Alberta. The problem here it seems to be is that once the individual is gone through a preliminary inquiry then they go to court of Queens Bench where there is a real shortage of judges. Alberta is grossly unrepresented in terms of Court of Queen’s Bench judges compared to the rest of the country and that is where the delay occurs. I mean, if you can get a preliminary inquiry done in a year in Provincial Court which is 6 months less than the 18 months that the Supreme Court says the trial should be completed at the Provincial Court level, you still likely won’t have room for a lengthly trial within an 18 month period once you get into the Court of Queen’s Bench. So, the problem seems to be, not with preliminary inquiries slowing up the system but what happens after they are completed.

Michael: And Greg I can’t think that dropping preliminary hearings is something you’d support

Greg: Well, as a defence lawyer, preliminary hearings are essential to making full answer defence. It allows an opportunity to cross examine witness’, to test the Crown’s evidence, to test the evidence of the state, and a lot of times Michael, after the preliminary hearing, files are resolved, a deal is either broken between the defence and the crown because of either frailties or strengths in the crowns case. Sometimes charges are thrown out or stayed and sometimes the defence decides to fold. So, those save, really, trial times. So preliminary inquiries are not the problem and getting rid of them is not the solution.

Michael: Okay, from the right to a timely trial to rights behind bars.

CLIP. Protestor: Dear Mr. Goodale, this is a letter in response to the Saskatchewan penitentiary riot.

Chris (Protestor): It’s a Federal system so these issues are also taking place in other penitentiaries. But specifically PA is one of the ones that has the worse reputation.

Michael: Basic livable conditions for inmates is what people in Regina protested for at a riot last weekend organized by the Saskatchewan collation against racism - they requested inmates receive edible and healthy food, basic health care, cultural activities and avoid abusive treatment from corrections staff. Federal public safety minister Ralph Goodale says changes within the correction system will be announced later this year. Kevin is prison supposed to be a pleasant place?

Kevin: Well, the average person on the street doesn’t think so and it is a jail, your liberties are taken away from you and justifiably so, but we have to look at the fact that, we as a nation have to treat even the worst in society as humanely. If there are issues of prisoners being given inadequate food or healthcare, I mean that’s just unacceptable and good on the Federal government for saying they are going to look into those issues. Let’s see what happens when they finally do come up with a solution.

Michael: And Greg, what comes with improving conditions?

Greg: Well, I mean, Im not so much concerned with whether these guys are getting roast beef for dinner or a cheese sandwich, but I think, what’s important is that they are getting the appropriate counselling and the appropriate level of support in terms of making them productive members of society when they get out. It does no one any good to have these guys go into prison on a minor criminal offence and then coming out trained professional criminals because they had nothing else to do but to think of schemes of what they are going to do when they are getting out - so I think education is important, vocational training is important, or to keep them working inside the system is important, and that’s where our tax dollars really should be focused on.

Michael: Gentleman, always appreciate your input. Thank you kindly.

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