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Les Leyne: 248-time Victoria offender cited as mayors express worry about 'catch and release' justice system

The mayors’ perspective: We have a serious problem, and it’s getting worse.
Victoria's downtown skyline. B.C. mayors are telling the province that more needs to be done to make city streets safer. TIMES COLONIST

There’s a repeat offender in Victoria who has generated 248 police incidents over a two-year period. Victoria police recommended charges 32 times and he has registered 35 offences elsewhere on Vancouver Island.

A total of 55 charges were submitted to the prosecution service and 22 convictions were obtained. The charges are in the range of minor theft, mischief, uttering threats, assault and possession of stolen property.

It’s one of several examples that B.C.’s big-city mayors provided to Attorney General David Eby when he asked them for more details about their increasing level of concern over chronic offenders who are routinely processed through what the mayors call the “catch and release” justice cycle.

The mayors’ letter includes a selection of horror stories related to prolific offenders who are striking growing levels of anxiety, fear and outrage on downtown streets around B.C. The Victoria individual’s current status isn’t reported, but, in the context of the letter, it’s likely he’s not in jail.

Victoria listed 10 chronic offenders who have generated 1,385 negative interactions with police over the past two years. Nine other cities report comparable numbers.

The letter from the Urban Mayors’ Caucus — which is co‑chaired by Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps — made it to the legislature Tuesday, by way of the B.C. Liberal opposition. The issue comes with a lot of complicated background related to crime statistics and federal changes to the justice system. But from the mayors’ perspective: We have a serious problem, and it’s getting worse.

Their analysis of the B.C. Prosecution Service’s annual reports for the past five years concludes that the prosecutors are getting fewer cases from police and they’re taking longer to review. Fewer cases are going to court, there are more stays of proceedings and fewer guilty verdicts.

The data reflect offenders who are “routinely arrested by police and subject to a report to Crown counsel recommending charges yet are either not charged and/or promptly released on bail, often without conditions.”

The mayors applauded the government’s commitment to complex-care housing to assist those with addictions and mental-health challenges. But they said not all prolific offenders need a health-care response.

“Rather, that their repeated and constant offending be deterred and denounced. These individuals are having a negative and costly impact … putting extreme pressure on policing … and eroding the sense of public safety and trust in the justice system.”

The mayors said more municipal safety spending isn’t the answer. “We have been doing that, which has come at the cost of other essential services.”

They call for stricter bail conditions, increased investment in the prosecution service, more community courts and a review of charge assessment guidelines.

Eby told the legislature he is working with the mayors on a response to the issue, but cited statistics showing 2020 had the fewest property offences in several years. “I disagree … that the statistics show that things are getting worse and worse.”

He acknowledged the pandemic played a role, but the issue is more complicated than the opposition was portraying.

“A lot of these offences are driven by people with serious mental-health and addiction issues … that’s why the complex-care initiative we are rolling out is going to make a huge difference for public safety in a number of ­communities.”

With opposition critics and the mayors pushing for a tougher approach, Eby said the system is based on federal law and the decision on jailing people is made by a judge who is independent of government.

While blaming the pandemic in part, Eby is also straddling a line between insisting that overall crime rates are down markedly while acknowledging that the levels of anxiety about crime are up. One specific crime drives a lot of that — random vicious attacks on strangers.

“One of the reasons people feel unsafe is that downtown, where foot traffic is way down, mental health and addiction, people suffering in public — talking to themselves, shouting at passersby — creates a feeling of lack of safety.”

He’s putting a lot of faith on fully supportive housing to ease that, but the mayors also question how services can be mandated prior to convictions.

Eby downplayed opposition critics’ concerns last month on the public safety issue. It’s harder to treat the mayors of B.C.’s biggest cities the same way.

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