A wish list for federal justice reform

Despite supporting evidence and past promises by the federal government, criminal justice system reform is unlikely, writes Michael Spratt

A wish list for federal justice reform
Michael Spratt

In a federal election devoid of big ideas, it should come as no surprise that criminal justice reform received no airtime.

After all, when the Liberals’ bold vision for the future focused on small tax breaks and status quo policies and the Conservative’s bold vision for the future focused on small tax breaks and status quo policies, who even had the time to talk about criminal justice?

But maybe this is all for the best. When nothing is promised, anything is possible. So, in no particular order, here is the definitive wish list of justice action for Canada’s 43rd parliament.

Increased legal aid funding

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford is slashing and burning legal aid. So, after the Liberals spent the entire federal election campaign railing against Ford, increased federal funding for legal aid must be a sure thing.

A well-funded legal aid system makes both economic and social sense. The World Bank found that failing to properly fund legal aid programs does not actually save money; it only shifts costs. The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice came to a similar conclusion, finding that “A growing body of empirical research reveals that investing in accessible and affordable justice results in monetary, personal, social and other benefits that outweigh the costs of the investment.”

It turns out that funding legal aid is as important for economic growth as it is for infrastructure spending.

While we are at it, how about the development of a national legal aid strategy? Criminal justice is supposed to be uniform throughout the provinces, yet we have a patchwork legal aid system. It’s time for that to change.

Resurrect the Law Reform Commission

The Law Reform Commission of Canada was created in 1971 and for 35 years (with a small interruption) provided non-partisan advice to the Canadian government on necessary legal reforms.

In 2006, Steven Harper’s Conservative government, in a short-sighted bid to save a couple of million dollars, killed the Commission. Ever since, politicians have increasingly used criminal justice as an ideological weapon.

Conservatives push for a harsh and punitive justice system, demonizing those who disagree as being soft on crime. Liberals have proven themselves supine and lacking the backbone to actually follow through on the necessary reforms they say they believe in.

The justice well is poisoned. When politicians can’t act like adults, a resurrected Law Reform Commission is all the more necessary.

Kill minimum sentences

The Liberals talk a good game about having respect for the judiciary. They even promised to repeal mandatory minimum sentences and restore judicial discretion, yet four years later minimum sentencing laws remain untouched.

Minimum sentences do not deter or reduce crime. In fact, minimum sentences increase rates of recidivism, fan the flames of systemic racial bias, and sometimes lead to wrongful convictions.

It is time for the government to be explicit; either they are in favour of the negative impacts of minimum sentence or they are not.

Correctional reform

There is no question that our prisons are Dickensian hellholes. Solitary confinement is torture. Rehabilitation is an increasing myth in our jails. Our correctional system should be our national shame.

The Liberal majority government promised to address these issues. The resulting legislation “eliminated” solitary confinement by simply calling it something else: segregation cells were renamed “structured intervention units.”

The new legislation was worse than what it replaced.

In the end, the reforms were cosmetic changes by a government obsessed with cosmetics. Better is not only possible, it is necessary.

Decriminalization of all drugs

It’s time. The NDP have long called for the decriminalization of personal possession of small amounts of drugs. The Greens support the idea. Hell, even the Liberal membership adopted a resolution last year supporting decriminalization.

Decriminalization would also recognize addiction for what it is: a health problem, not a criminal matter. Decriminalization would save lives, undo the harms flowing from criminalization itself, and strike a huge blow against the racism that infects the justice system.

It’s time for action, not cowardice.

Pardon legislation

In 2016, Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale vowed action to overhaul Steven Harper’s “punitive” criminal pardon system. And then he did nothing.

Goodale lost his seat in Parliament last week; perhaps the biggest obstacle to pardon reform has now been swept away.

Maybe now there will be action on much-needed pardon reforms.

SNC-Lavalin

There is not likely much utility in relitigating the SNC-Lavalin affair; but the government must take steps to make sure that nothing so odious ever happens again.

I’m not talking about moving forward with the McLellan report on the roles of the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General. A prime minister intent on interference will always find a way to interfere.

Instead, Parliament needs to look at the root causes of the SNC fiasco: concentration of power in the PMO, policy decisions driven by backroom corporate lobbying, and the dastardly practice of slipping important legislation into law through omnibus legislation.

This was bad when Harper did it and it was equally bad when Trudeau followed suit.

Stop fighting Indigenous kids in court

Can we just stop?

For over a decade, Cindy Blackstock has led a crusade to stop the government’s discrimination against Indigenous kids. The Harper government fought Blackstock tooth and nail in court. And then so did Trudeau.

Let’s be blunt. Trudeau’s actions constitute hypocrisy of the worse kind; while his lawyers fight kids in court he smiles to the cameras and speaks words of reconciliation.

In 2016 the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the Canada was racially discriminating against 165,000 First Nations children and ordered it to immediately stop its discriminatory conduct.

But, the government didn’t stop.

There were seven noncompliance orders issued by the Tribunal that documented ongoing and willful discrimination by the government.

And, the government didn’t stop.

The discrimination continues to this day and the government has filed an appeal seeking to deny Indigenous kids the compensation and services they deserve.

Cindy Blackstock is a national hero.

And on this issue the government’s actions should be seen as a national disgrace.

This one is easy: stop fighting Indigenous kids in court. Just stop.

Those are my simple wishes.

But let’s be real. None of this will happen.

Minimum sentencing will remain untouched, corporate self-interest will continue to infect government policy, discrimination will continue, we will continue to prosecute drug addicts, Indigenous kids will suffer, prisons will remain hell holes, and legal aid will continue to die a slow death.

The last election was not devoid of big ideas because there are no new big ideas, but because both the Liberals and Conservatives seem incapable of looking past their short-term self-interests — especially when it comes to criminal justice.

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