‘Communities can’t wait’: B.C. urges Ottawa to pass bail reform bill 

Click to play video: 'Lametti outlines amendments to Canada’s criminal code in new bail reform legislation'
Lametti outlines amendments to Canada’s criminal code in new bail reform legislation
WATCH: Justice Minister David Lametti outlined the amendments being made to Canada’s criminal code as part of new bail reform legislation he announced Tuesday. – May 16, 2023

Politicians and advocates in B.C. are welcoming a new federal bail reform bill that, if passed, would make it more difficult for violent repeat offenders to be immediately released after their arrest.

Bill C-48, tabled Tuesday, proposes changes to the Criminal Code, including a requirement that courts consider a suspect’s history of convictions for violence, community safety and security concerns before making a bail decision. It would also expand the set of circumstances under which the onus falls on a suspect to demonstrate why they should be let out on bail.

“This needs to happen for the sake of the public,” Collen Middleton, president of the Nanaimo Area Public Safety Association, said in a Tuesday interview.

“The public has elected our elected officials to protect and govern the people, and they need to do their job and it needs to be done quickly. It’s obvious that these changes need to go through.”

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Click to play video: 'Bail reform legislation is ‘targeted’ to avoid disproportionate impacts on overrepresented groups: Lametti'
Bail reform legislation is ‘targeted’ to avoid disproportionate impacts on overrepresented groups: Lametti

The Nanaimo Area Public Safety Association is among the community safety advocates who held rallies in seven B.C. cities last month, demanding urgent action from all levels of government to crack down on violent crime and recidivism.

In March, the group wrote Nanaimo’s mayor and council about a “sharp escalation” in health and safety concerns in the Vancouver Island city, particularly in the area of Victoria Road. That letter cited a spike in overdoses, accumulation of drug use paraphernalia on the streets, and increased “threatening and intimidating behaviours” towards residents.

“We need this to stop. We need to be able to sleep soundly at night,” Middleton said, calling Bill C-48 a “step in the right direction.”

“Here in Nanaimo, a lot of the people that live in the community know who the repeat offenders are because they’re always around. Some of them are entrenched in the street community and they are dangerous to other people in the street community, and they’re dangerous to the public at large.”

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Click to play video: 'B.C. attorney general releases more troubling stats on violent crime and repeat offenders'
B.C. attorney general releases more troubling stats on violent crime and repeat offenders

Bill C-48 aims to expand what’s known as the “reverse onus,” a provision that, for certain crimes, requires an accused person to show why they should be released on bail, as opposed to the default — a Charter-protected right “not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause.”

If passed, the reverse onus would be triggered automatically for any person charged with a serious offence involving violence and the use of a weapon, if that person has been convicted within the last five years of an offence with same criteria. A serious offence is defined as any crime with a maximum sentence of at least 10 years.

The reverse onus would also be triggered any time someone is alleged to have unlawfully possessed a loaded or easily loaded prohibited or restricted firearm, broken and entered to steal a firearm, committed robbery to steal a firearm, or created an automatic firearm.

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It would be broadened as well to target repeat offenders of intimate partner violence. In addition to applying anyone with a previous conviction, it would also apply to any suspect who has previously been found guilty of an intimate-partner-related offence, but received a discharge.

Click to play video: 'B.C. premier calls on Ottawa for bail reform'
B.C. premier calls on Ottawa for bail reform

While the proposed changes do not expand the reverse onus to include allegations of crime involving knives or bear spray — something B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has advocated for — the province, too, welcomed the bill.

“While we’ll be looking closely at the details of the federal legislation, the amendments broadly cover the types of violence we are seeing in our communities,” Attorney General Niki Sharma said in a Tuesday news release. “I urge the federal parliament to pass these amendments quickly – communities can’t wait.”

In April, the BC Prosecution Service released new data showing B.C. judges ordered pre-trial detention in less than half of cases where Crown prosecutors sought it. Over five-weeks of bail hearings in November and December 2022, along with a week each in February and March 2023, B.C. judges denied bail in 276 cases of 667 — about four times in 10.

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Judges ordered pre-trial detention in about a quarter of cases involving suspects accused of violent crime who were already on bail for other matters, the prosecution service added.

In 425 bail hearings involving a suspect both accused of a violent crime and with a bail breach on their file, the Crown only sought detention orders in 222 cases (52 per cent).

Click to play video: 'B.C. launches 12 targeted enforcement, investigation hubs to tackle repeat violent offenders'
B.C. launches 12 targeted enforcement, investigation hubs to tackle repeat violent offenders

Dhanu Dhaliwal Law Group co-founder Rob Dhanu said while it would certainly reform the bail system, he doubted Bill C-48 would help dampen an increase in random violent crime in B.C.

“Bill C-48 is a political response to this problem, and I emphasize the word political because in my view, it does nothing to address the actual root cause of increased random violence that we’re seeing,” the former federal Crown prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer told 980 CKNW’s The Jill Bennett Show.

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Dhanu said it’s more difficult to making meaningful progress on homelessness, mental health and addictions than it is to “beat the drum of getting tough on crime.”

“Our bail laws already address these issues … when we have prolific offenders, we do see those individuals being kept in custody. What we don’t hear about in the news is when an individual has a long record and they are detained.”

In order for legislation to make a meaningful difference in reducing crime, Dhanu said it would need to be “extreme” — going down a path of more severe punishments — but Canada is trying to strike a balance between “keeping our streets safe and maintaining a free and democratic society.”

Click to play video: 'Canadian Bar Association weighs in on the debate over bail reform'
Canadian Bar Association weighs in on the debate over bail reform

Last month, B.C. launched its Repeat Violent Offending Intervention Initiative, including 12 regional hubs housing a dedicated team of police, prosecutors and probation officers who will pool their expertise and attempt to achieve better outcomes when repeat violent offenders present themselves.

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They will monitor cases involving prolific offenders from through the investigation, court process and community supervision phase in an attempt to break cycles of recidivism, with initial three-year funding of $25 million. The province expects 42 BC Prosecution Service staff and Crown counsellors, four BC Corrections officers, nine correctional supervisors and 21 probation officers to be part of the program.

The government is also funding the creation of a new Special Investigation and Targeted Enforcement Program — SITE — which will expand police investigative resources and targeted enforcement capacity, as well as allow quicker information-sharing and co-ordination between forces.

An initial $16 million in funding over three years will kickstart the program, designed to support the Repeat Violent Offending Intervention Initiative.

— with files from Simon Little 

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