Comment: B.C.’s criminal justice system among worst in Canada

British Columbia’s criminal justice system ranks among the worst in the country. It’s a shocking realization, and the data show things are only getting worse. Provincial leaders need to act now to begin reforms.

In the latest Report Card on the Criminal Justice System we have produced for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, B.C. dropped to 10th place (from eighth place) among the 13 provinces and territories in our rankings. Most alarming are the trends around public safety in B.C., as well as fairness in the system and access to justice. For a large, wealthy province, this is really astounding.

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British Columbia’s criminal justice system significantly underperformed most provinces on many measures, giving it a C+ grade overall as the second worst-ranked province after Manitoba. It ranked especially poor for low rates of police solving crime, mediocre public perceptions of the police, justice system and courts, low levels of criminal legal aid, and disproportionately high rates of sending Indigenous people to prison.

Using the latest Statistics Canada data and quantitative statistical methods, we again assessed each province and territory’s criminal justice system based on five major objectives: public safety, support for victims, costs and resources, fairness and access to justice, and efficiency.

Failing grades were handed to B.C. for relatively low rates of police solving crime. B.C. has the lowest weighted violent crime clearance rate (51.7 per cent) and the lowest weighted non-violent crime clearance rate (20.4 per cent) of anywhere in Canada. That’s right, nearly half of violent crimes go unsolved in the province.

Public perceptions of the police in B.C. are below average, specifically in enforcing the law, ensuring public safety, satisfaction with public safety, providing information, being approachable, being fair and responding promptly. Confidence in the police, justice system and courts in B.C. is also below average.

There’s more. B.C. has one of the highest property-crime rates per capita among the provinces. It also has one of the highest rates of breach of probation in Canada and relatively high rates of failure to comply with court orders. Its prison system is more expensive than other provinces’ in terms of daily inmate costs, and it employs more police per capita.

With respect to fairness and access to justice, B.C. spends relatively little on legal aid. It also has one of the most disproportionately high levels of adding Indigenous people to its prisons of anywhere in Canada. The combination of these two shortcomings is especially concerning.

There are a handful of areas where B.C. performed much better relative to other provinces. The province has relatively low rates of accused persons failing to appear in court and being unlawfully at large. In terms of efficiency, the province has more Criminal Code incidents per police officer than is typical in Canada, and relatively fewer accused persons in jail awaiting trial per 1,000 crimes than average.

B.C.’s poor overall results cover a period when the previous B.C. Liberal government was in power, not the current NDP minority provincial government. B.C. Attorney General David Eby was tasked in his mandate letter with addressing some of these serious problems, including improving legal aid for Indigenous people and taking unspecified “action” to reduce the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous persons. The challenge is a persistent one that has shown itself impervious to being addressed by mere good intentions alone.

The problems with British Columbia’s criminal justice system not only implicate the federal and provincial governments, but also the police, Crown prosecutors, the criminal defence bar and the courts. There was significant resistance to reform efforts when the previous B.C. Liberal government tried to bring in measures to enhance efficiency in the justice system.

All of the various actors involved in the system in B.C. need to commit to working collaboratively, as appropriate, to begin to address these longstanding and deepening issues with the province’s criminal justice system.

Benjamin Perrin is a law professor at the University of British Columbia and a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Richard Audas is a health statistics and economics professor at Memorial University.

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