Premier David Eby said he hears the concerns of citizens who attended public safety rallies across B.C. Thursday, but the leader of the official Opposition said the premier’s policies are to blame for the explosion in violence and social disorder.
“I agree with those folks who are out there,” said Eby, speaking ahead of rallies organized in seven cities by the grassroots Nanaimo Area Public Safety Association. “They deserve safe communities and our government is on their side.”
Dozens of people gathered at the legislature in Victoria, as well as in Surrey, Nanaimo, Prince George, Dawson Creek, Penticton and Kamloops calling for a crackdown on repeat violent offenders.
Collen Middleton, a Nanaimo resident who helped organize the rallies, said people are frustrated that, despite government announcements about tools to deal with prolific offenders, the random violent attacks and open drug use continue.
“If they do understand how to fix it, why are they not moving faster?” Middleton asked. “Because the issues facing us right now are growing.”
Last fall, a report commissioned by the province and authored by Doug LePard and Amanda Butler found that random attacks and violent crime by repeat offenders jumped 31 per cent in 2020-21 compared to 2019.
In the last month alone, a 17-year-old was fatally stabbed on a bus in Surrey and a father was stabbed to death outside a downtown Vancouver Starbucks in front of his partner and young daughter.
During question period Thursday, BC United leader Kevin Falcon said responsibility for this “explosion of violence and social disorder falls squarely on the shoulders of this soft-on-crime premier.”
As former housing minister, Eby forced supportive housing developments on B.C. communities without the proper mental health and addiction supports, Falcon alleges, which showed a “failure” to address encampments and violence in tent cities.
Falcon also blamed Eby, the former attorney general, for a so-called “catch and release” justice system that “allows violent prolific offenders to act with total impunity knowing they’ll be released right back into the community.”
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the province has invested in integrated teams to deal with prolific offenders, earmarked $1 billion over three years for mental health and addiction, and spent $230 million to add more RCMP officers to rural communities.
B.C. Green party leader Sonia Furstenau said it’s over-simplistic to blame the current government for public safety issues that are playing out in provinces across Canada, whether they’re led by left-leaning or right-leaning governments.
“We’ve had for decades governments really stripping back social programs, stripping back investments into what are essentially the institutions and the foundations of a really healthy society: public education, health care, mental health care, social housing and non-market housing,” she said.
“And now we’re seeing the consequences of that austerity, of that scarcity model of governing and governments are all pointing their fingers and opposition parties are pointing their fingers at each other.”
Earlier this week, the B.C. Prosecution Service released data based on seven weeks of bail hearing outcomes in late 2022 and early 2023 that backs up the NDP government’s narrative that Crown prosecutors are trying to keep repeat violent offenders behind bars but those efforts are being thwarted by independent judges bound by federal bail laws.
The B.C. Prosecution Service also released a statement defending the fact that Crown prosecutors only ask for pretrial detention in about half of cases involving repeat violent offenders, saying that the justice system would “grind to a halt” if it adopted a blanket policy of asking for detention in every case. The service said discretion by police, prosecutors and judges is a key part to maintaining fairness in the justice system.
Eby said Thursday he’s hopeful the targeted reforms to the Criminal Code promised last month by federal Justice Minister David Lametti will be introduced before the end of Ottawa’s spring legislative session in June.
Lametti’s office this week said the 2019 bail reforms brought in through Bill C-75 are in line with binding Supreme Court of Canada decisions that people accused of crimes should be released with the least onerous bail conditions.
His office also said the reforms did not change the criteria for when accused people can be released on bail.
The statements and Lametti’s previous defence of federal bail reforms indicate Ottawa isn’t likely to make major changes to bail law reforms intended to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
Eby said he understands “that the intention behind the federal bail rule changes was that they wouldn’t significantly change the situation on the ground.” That has not been the case, Eby said, and this is why Canadian premiers are unanimous in calling for action from Ottawa.
“We all agree that the implementation of these new rules has resulted in some very negative outcomes for our communities. People feel less safe.”
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