Re: Efficiencies in the justice system
A few short weeks before the election, you took the time to stop for a selfie with me on the streets of Toronto. I am sure that this happens quite a lot in your line of work. I doubt that you remember. But maybe you do. That day, my spouse had just finished a seven-hour canvass for the NDP and was covered in orange buttons. She was also politely heckling as we had our picture taken. I will admit, it was slightly awkward. But, even as we told you there was no way your party would ever get our vote, you took time to stop and talk with us. Then you gave me you cell number and told me to text you if I ever had any questions. I am told that this is a very Ford thing to do.
And then, a week later, I did text you. The Ottawa Police Association has just endorsed the Progressive Conservatives. Their key issues were rolling back legislative limits to carding and Bill 175, which strengthened police oversight. So, I sent a text to you to ask your position on these important issues. Within two hours, you called me back and told me that you did not support carding and that you would review Bill 175 line by line but that you were in favour of oversight to deal with bad police apples. Maybe you were just telling me what I wanted to hear, but as you promised a week before, on the streets of Toronto, you did call back.
I have never seen eye to eye with the federal Conservatives on justice issues. But I also have some big problems with what the Liberals have and have not done on that file. Justice, policing and correctional policy should not be a partisan issue. It is also no secret that much of your platform causes me serious concern — climate change is real, taxes are not bad and buck-a-beer is one of the pander-iest election promises ever. But you took the time to listen to me once, so I hope you will take the time to listen one more time.
Rational and responsible justice policy can be a hard sell and after decades of crime and punishment being used as red meat to throw to a hungry Conservative base, good policy decisions will take guts. But good policy can make our communities safer, benefit the economy and save buckets of money.
So, for your consideration, here are my top five provincial justice suggestions.
Expand legal aid
Look, we all know you are going to have to cut spending to balance the books. But, as a businessman, you know better than anyone that sometimes you need to spend money to save money. Ontario Legal Aid is underfunded. The poverty line in Ontario is hovering around $20,000. The cutoff for Legal Aid eligibility is just less than $17,000. This means that the poorest in our communities — even when facing a possible jail sentence — are denied assistance. This results in unfairness in our courts, but it also results in increased government spending. How, you ask? In our adversarial system, the courts will not let an impoverished and unsophisticated David battle Goliath. So, when legal aid denies funding, the courts order it. Either way, the government pays. But when the courts order funding, it costs Ontario more in lawyers’ fees, court time and other ancillary costs. Spending a little more on legal aid will actually save the province money, increase efficiencies in our courts and ensure fairness for the little guy.
Cancel the Liberals’ new $1-billion jail
The Liberals planned to build a bigger, $1-billion jail in Ottawa. Cancel it. The simple fact is that there are too many people in jail. We incarcerate a disproportionate number of poor, marginalized and racialized individuals. Our jails are not bursting because of an increase in violent crime; actually, violent crime rates are approaching all-time lows. Our jails are bursting because we are locking people up for property offences, administration of justice offences and petty crimes. If you build it, they will fill it. Just look at the Toronto South Detention Centre. Built at a cost of more than $1 billion and opened in 2014, the South was billed as a modern miracle. Today, the South is a crowded “house of horrors.”
It costs almost $80,000 a year to incarcerate one person, so let’s work to find alternatives that can save money.
Offer rehabilitation in our jails
We all have had friends and family that have been touched by addiction and mental health issues. We would never expect our family member’s addiction to magically get better without treatment. The sad fact is that most people in jail have some type of addiction or mental health issue. But our provincial jails don’t offer any meaningful counselling. In short, people usually come out of jail in worse shape than they went in. We should all stop feigning surprise that serious mental health and addiction issues are not spontaneously cured and inmates reoffend when those same people are warehoused and offered no support or treatment. Meaningful rehab programs in our jails would keep our communities safer, reduce recidivism and save money.
Modernize our courts
It is 2018, but our courts operate like it’s 1995. Paper rules the day; fax machines are considered cutting-edge technology and most business must be done in person. If you are looking for inefficiencies in our courtrooms, you won’t need to look far. The province can save money by digitizing dockets and court information. But, more importantly, we can also save time by using technology to eliminate redundant in-person court appearances for routine matters. As a bonus, these newly reclaimed court recourses can be used to move serious criminal charges through the court system more quickly.
Cut out the small stuff
This one will take some guts — but I hear you have those. When it comes to policing and prosecutions, cut out the petty crap so we can focus on the important cases. Our court dockets are overflowing with petty offences and victimless crimes. Not only does the obsession with petty crime interfere with the reintegration of offenders, it is expensive. As a businessman, the thought of spending thousands of dollars to prosecute and jail a homeless man for a $10 theft must turn your stomach. Focusing on the small stuff also squanders limited court resources we could be using to prosecute serious offenders. By refocusing how police and prosecutors use their time, we can save money and make our streets safer.
As you said, a new day has dawned in Ontario. And I have to admit that I am a bit fearful over how that day will turn out. The pull to continue business as usual in the justice system will be overwhelming. It will be easy to blindly support the police. It will be seductive to cut social funding. It will be mouth-watering to continue the partisan politicization of justice issues. Heck, even the Liberals in Ottawa have not had the fortitude to get it right.
But you said you would be different.
And you have my number — so call me any time.
J. Michael Spratt, partner
Abergel Goldstein & Partners
Criminal Defence Counsel