Vaughn Palmer: BC justice system isn’t broken, but it’s not perfect, says Deputy Attorney General

“Public confidence can be undermined by misinformed or inaccurate public statements.” – Assistant Deputy Attorney General Peter Juk

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VICTORIA — The head of BC’s prosecution service says politicians and the media that focus on prolific offenders and random violence are creating a false impression about crime rates that could undermine confidence in the justice system.

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“Politicians at all levels, as well as police officers, members of the public and the media have repeatedly raised concerns about public safety, ‘prolific offenders’ and random acts of violence,” the Deputy wrote. Assistant Attorney General Peter Juk in a recent defense of the system.

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“This seems to have led to the perception that the overall crime rate is on the rise across British Columbia”

On the contrary, says Juk in the Sept. 8 missive: “Overall crime rates in British Columbia are about as low as they have been for many years.

Juk particularly objected to “catch and release” as a way to characterize a system where repeat offenders are arrested and released without bail to reoffend.

“The phrase tends to undermine a fundamental principle underlying all enlightened criminal justice systems: respect for the humanity of all individuals, including those charged with a crime,” he wrote.

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“When deciding whether to oppose or consent to bail, and on what terms, Crown prosecutors must try to balance the public’s right to safety with the constitutional right to freedom of an individual and his right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Pre-trial detention disproportionately affects “defendants from disadvantaged and vulnerable communities (and) tends to increase the risk of future criminalization of an accused (and) the already unacceptable overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system” .

The “catch and release” charge is a favorite of BC Liberals.

Juk did not mention the Liberals by name.

Nonetheless, the strongly worded rejection of catch and release amounts to an indirect blow to the opposition from a senior official.

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He also took issue with insinuations that the “strong presumption in favor of bail” was a creation of the NDP government.

Since becoming head of the prosecution service in the final year of the BC Liberal administration, Juk says he has received “no direction” from Liberal or New Democrat attorneys general regarding policy on charge assessment or bail.

He issued directives on his own authority incorporating amendments to federal criminal law and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada.

“Crown attorneys often balance competing rights and interests and make release decisions under severe time pressure based on limited information,” Juk wrote.

“They have to make very difficult decisions to formulate bail positions that comply with both the spirit and the letter of the law.

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“Crown counsel cannot predict with certainty the future actions of the accused, and they cannot eliminate all risk.

Can’t predict future actions? Even when the accused’s record shows a series of repeated offences?

“As British Columbians, who live and actively contribute to the communities where they work, Crown attorneys recognize that certain neighborhoods have suffered disproportionately from certain types of offenses in recent times,” Juk acknowledged.

“To some degree, the Crown attorney can try to take current local conditions into account when determining whether an accused is being held or released on bail before trial.

As you read on, you learn that prosecutors can take these factors into account to some extent, but not to a very great extent.

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“In a bail hearing, the primary focus should be on the particular accused in court and the particulars of his alleged offence, which the Crown prosecutor should consider whenever he deals with the issue of bail.

In the end, according to the prosecution: “The system is not down.”

“However, no system is perfect,” he hastened to add, “and public confidence in the criminal justice system is essential to its success.

“Public scrutiny, informed discussion and reasoned debate help ensure the proper functioning of our criminal justice system. It also helps us make improvements and adjustments where necessary to ensure that we can fulfill our mandate as an independent, efficient and fair prosecution service.

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This is not the case when the review places too much emphasis on prolific offenders – “a label that has no clear legal definition and can mean different things to different people” – and random acts of violence.

“Public trust can be undermined by misinformed or inaccurate public statements,” Juk wrote.

“The public deserves to know the real facts: about the criminal justice process; on the strict legal requirements imposed by Parliament and the Supreme Court of Canada; and about the real limits of what Crown prosecutors (and the criminal justice system) can and cannot do to address broader social issues like mental health and the addiction crisis.

Some hard facts in the political realm prompted David Eby, before he resigned to run for the NDP leadership, to commission a review of solutions to the problem of “prolific offenders” – his term, if not Juk’s – and random violence.

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The report is overdue but a summary with recommendations is expected this week.

It will be interesting to see to what extent it offers new solutions to the problem, and to what extent it echoes the Crown’s apparent view that there is “no story here.”

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