Raising Awareness of Canadians wrongly convicted

Alberta Prime Time - Discussing the latest in crime topics are Mark Cherrington a Youth Justice Advocate, Erin Gibbs Van Brunschot with the University of Calgary, and Greg Dunn a Calgary Criminal Defence lawyer.


Raising Awareness of Canadians Wrongly Convicted

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Michael: Imagine spending time behind bars for a crime you didn’t commit. We are discussing wrongful convictions on tonight's crime panel and whether or not the true crime trend has any real impact on how such cases are treated by the courts as well tonight. Why are youth spending less time behind bars and after the shooting death of a high-profile athlete in Calgary, some are asking if more security is needed in night clubs. Joining us this evening is Youth Justice advocate Mark Cherrington, Erin Gibbs Van Brunschot is an associate professor of sociology specializing in crime - she is with the University of Calgary - and defence lawyer Greg Dunn is back after a lengthy break. Glad to have all three of you with us. Good evening folks.

Erin: Hi there

Greg: Good evening

Michael: Okay, the third annual wrongful conviction day marked this week. A day to raise awareness about the stories of Canadians wrongly accused and convicted. We featured one such case on Monday. That of David Milgaard who spent more than two decades behind bars for a murder he did not commit.

(clip) David: I was in prison for more than 22 years. It’s an emotional thing. It's reaching inside someplace where I don’t really want to go but it’s where we need to go today if we are going to make a difference. Our present Canadian conviction review process is failing miserably. The Justice Department’s criteria and lack of resources makes it impossible for them to effectively, efficiently and quickly review cases of wrongful conviction .

Michael: That was an interesting feature and if you missed it, be sure to check out the full video- it is on our website. Now, David Milgaard’s story has attracted the attention of Canadians for years, so it’s no wonder these storylines have made it into the plots of popular TV series, podcasts and movies, but has the true crime trend impacted how these cases are tried and judged. Erin, there is certainly a lot more access to information and it’s creating something of a pop culture craze, but does that mean the courts are treating such cases any differently?

Erin: I don’t believe that it has had any impact at this point. It may have some impact in the future whereas the public may be slightly informed and be willing to challenge the courts on various things but at this stage I can’t see that there’s going to be much of an impact. I think that people are peppered with a ton of information about court and court cases from the media but I'm not sure that it really will have any impact on what is happening in the courts.

Michael: Well, you know, Erin, do you believe giving the public more information about the criminal justice system is beneficial though?

Erin: I think it’s always good to supply people with information and if we have it available, we should give it to them. I think part of the problem though is that people don’t necessarily have a context within which to put that information. So you can supply people with information but hearing or looking at a little snippet of a court case doesn’t really allow them to fully digest all of the information that really does apply to that particular case. I think that what often is missing is the context to these cases.

Michael: And so then what’s at risk, Greg, the fact that tv crime is spreading over to that entertainment value region. How is that impacting respect for the criminal process?

Greg: Well, I think - taking off what Erin said, there’s a difference between access to information and understanding information. So you mean from a defence perspective or from a criminal justice perspective, I think we always have concerns as to how information is portrayed to the general public and guys that are producing these documentaries or the guys who are put up, you know, putting the packages together have a tremendous amount of control of how they’re fed to the general public. The question is, is the case of the facts of the case being portrayed in an impartial and fair and balanced manner? Is there any sort of political objective underlying the portrayal of how things are being fed to the general public? Are the viewers being given context with respect to decisions that are made? Do they understand the law that’s being applied? Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Rolling into another aspect of it is, and the concern I have is sometimes when you take something that’s a rather solemn proceeding, you take criminal justice proceedings in which there are actual real lives that are being affected, you have a victim that has been traumatized, you have an accused whose life is on the line and you turn it into entertainment for the viewing masses. It undermines, I think in the long term, the administration of justice and the public confidence in the administration of justice, so I think what we’re dealing with is there is some benefit for the public to have that information - but maybe too much is not necessarily a good thing.

Michael: Mark, where do you see the focus needing to be?

Mark: Well, I think we need to have a well funded public and legal system. That means enough judges to hear these cases in timely matters. We need a very proactive group of lawyers with the bar that are actively looking at these cases, willing to take these cases through the appeal processes when necessary. We need funding streams available to ensure that there is proper research to give these lawyers the assistance that they need to look for and assist people that are maybe wrongly convicted or facing serious consequences and unable to pay for a lawyer - so there’s a bunch of issues within the system itself that I think we can enhance and maybe entrench to ensure that the likelihood of wrongful convictions are diminished significantly if there’s a strong proactive approach.

Michael: Now Greg, Innocence Canada is just one organization advocating for the need for reforms to Canada’s bail system arguing the number of Canadian’s held in remand has tripled over the last three decades due in part to pretrial detention and bail conditions. Greg, where do you stand on the need for reforms?

Greg: Well, you know, it’s interesting that this is coming up and there is public outcry or complaints about people being incarcerated away awaiting trials because I can remember 10 years ago, the big battle cry was that we had a catch-and-release system. Individuals were going in for relatively minor crimes and being released on bail and they may commit an additional crime and there was a big public outcry. I think the chief of police at that time called it catch and release and so as a result, I think the pressure on the judges was to keep people in jail and that’s what happened. Now we have jails in which individuals who are presumed innocent, they are awaiting trial, there are not guilty of any offence, they’re sitting in jail wallowing away awaiting trials - so this is the flip side, in my view, of going a little bit too far in terms of stringent bail release conditions and onerous bail release conditions. One of the good things about bail is that the criminal justice system is pretty flexible in terms of addressing these particular issues and deficiencies. Judges can release people if they deem that an individual is releasable. If crown’s find, look our jails are overfill and they are bursting at the seams, they can always be a little more reasonable with respect to agreeing to bail and reasonable bail with respect to individuals. So it can be dealt with in the system. I don’t think we need anything that is legislative in terms of new legislation. Simply we just need the public to understand that people are presumed innocent before they go to trial and they ought to be given reasonable bail.

Michael: All right, now for a break when we return though, speaking of jail new numbers indicate Canadian youth are spending less time behind bars. Our panel looks at the reason why and the potential impact - that’s next.

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