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Les Leyne: Yes, the criminal-justice system is broken

The assistant deputy attorney general responsible for the prosecution service issued an unusual statement disputing the “catch and release” phrase and saying it’s not the province that set the strong presumption in favour of pretrial release

A few weeks before the independent report on prolific offenders and random stranger attacks gripped the legislature’s attention, there was another contribution on the topic.

It was a very unusual statement from the assistant deputy attorney general responsible for the prosecution service, Peter Juk, QC.

He wrote a lengthy exposition couched as “a response to recent public criticisms of the criminal justice system.” Juk, a veteran former prosecutor who has been responsible for the prosecution service since 2016, said the system can’t fix underlying social problems and fill all the gaps in other sectors.

He said public confidence can be undermined by uninformed or inaccurate public statements. He disputed the “catch and release” phrase commonly used to describe how prolific offenders are dealt with and said the overall crime rate “is as low as it has been for years.”

“The system is not broken,” he said.

Assistant deputy ministers are normally loath to dive into highly partisan political arguments, but Juk was not shy about joining the fray.

He explained the federal constraints and Supreme Court of Canada decisions that provinces are obliged to work with. It’s not the province that set the strong presumption in favour of pretrial release, he said.

Using the “catch and release” shorthand “tends to undermine a basic principle underlying all enlightened criminal justice systems: respect for the humanity of all individuals, including those who are accused of crime.”

That’s a direct shot at the Opposition Liberals, who use it routinely, as do some of the B.C. mayors who have been flagging the crisis.

Former attorney general David Eby was responsible for defending the system for the last five years, but he vacated the job to run for the NDP leadership.

Eby’s successor, Murray Rankin, said Wednesday that Juk issued the statement completely on his own, because the ­prosecution service maintains a degree of independence from his ministry and the rest of ­government.

Subsequent events brought Juk’s statement into sharper focus. The independent report by consultants Doug LePard and Amanda Butler that was quietly released last Saturday has a markedly different tone.

They acknowledged the extreme frustration and “angst” many feel about prolific offenders and random violent attacks. They said the crime statistics don’t provide an accurate picture of what’s going on.

In the section dealing specifically with Juk’s department, the prosecution service, the independent review said mayors and many police agencies feel local Crown counsel offices are understaffed and are “drowning.”

“We heard repeatedly from police agencies throughout B.C. that there are insufficient resources in the prosecution service and that their local Crown Counsel have explicitly stated as much.”

Eby, by contrast, told them that prosecutors have “more resources to deal with fewer cases than ever before.”

LePard and Butler weighed the arguments and came down pretty solidly on the side that the prosecution service is short-staffed, and needs more help immediately to deal with prolific offenders.

It’s hard to square their views on the prosecution service and the crime issue in general with Juk’s assurance that “the system is not broken.”

The NDP government seems to be siding with the independent reviewers as well. No one in cabinet has responded with “the system is not broken.”

Premier John Horgan said Wednesday there is genuine and real concern about what is happening in B.C. communities.

But he, too, dismissed “catch and release” as just a bumper sticker slogan.

Juk also did an interview with LePard and Butler, who quoted more of his thoughts. Discussing the criminal justice system, he said: “We get the problem when everything else has failed, mental health care, schooling, housing, etc. …

“We don’t have access to alternative measures or off ramps for these offenders. …”

“So we only charge in the most serious and repetitive cases and only seek detention when there is really no ­alternative and when we do seek detention the courts push back. …

“If they get detained, we’re going to roll up a plea deal, they won’t get federal time. … They do a few months, maybe 18 at the most. … When they get out, the cycle continues.”

Whatever prompted his ­unusual public statement, a full read of the situation suggests that the system is most definitely broken.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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