Ahead in parliament…

   Jan 28, 2014

 Catherine Latimer, Executive Director of John Howard Canada:
Struggles ahead for justice in Canada…Where Parliament needs to act

 After a break for the holiday season, the House of Commons resumes today.  The Government has indicated that, in the months ahead, it will be inviting Parliament to consider a number of new legislative proposals, including: a victims’ bill of rights; prostitution law reforms owing to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Bedford; and possibly tougher laws for sex offenders, and “life means life” reforms. 

 Bills that have already been introduced will continue to be studied and processed by Parliament, including the not-criminally responsible regime reforms.

 There are significant issues on the justice and corrections front where serious Parliamentary review would be useful.  Many of us have raised the concern that the cumulative impact of changes in the justice and corrections sector has not been adequately assessed.  The overburdening of these systems have led to serious delays, problems with access to justice, disproportionate penalties, overcrowding, and cruel conditions in remand and correctional facilities, all amounting to likely violations of Charter-protected and other rights.  Unnoticed, the administration of justice has fallen into disrepute.  Here are five areas where Parliament could act to improve justice and corrections and help to restore confidence:

 1)      Responding to the Ashley Smith Coroner’s Inquest Recommendations

 Parliamentary involvement in the response to the Ashley Smith Report and its implementation would help to address the serious problems faced by many prisoners afflicted with mental health, cognitive, and developmental disabilities.  Particularly important are those recommendations limiting administrative segregation or isolation for those with such disabilities, promoting transfers of self-injuring and seriously ill inmates to secure treatment facilities, and oversight and involvement of NGOs and others to assist.

 2)      Addressing the Remand Crisis

 The number of people, presumed innocent, behind bars awaiting trial and sentencing exceeds the number of those in provincial custodial facilities following a sentence for a criminal offence.  This is fairly recent and is inconsistent with the reality of other developed countries.   Both the numbers awaiting trial in custody and the harshremand conditions in many parts of Canada need immediate redress.  While the provinces and territories are responsible for the conditions and the administration of the pre-trial detention and release system, the federal government is responsible for the Criminal Code provisions determining pre-trial detention and release.  Justice Minister MacKay indicated that he would review those provisions.

 3)      Access to Justice

 The judiciary and the legal profession have raised concerns about the lack of access to justice and the negative effects it has on the delivery of justice.  Fiscal constraints on governments and their implications for legal aid, additional courts and judges are leading to many more self-represented accused.  Not only are the accused not receiving the benefits of legal advice in their defences, this results in considerable delays in processing cases.  New measures, such as the proposed Victims’ Bill of Rights which may require that victims be consulted at each stage and possibly be represented by counsel, could further compound access to justice problems.

 4)      Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration

 There is little doubt that the federal correctional service is facing what the government itself admits are significant challenges .  These include: increasing numbers of prisoners; infrastructure changes with 3 penitentiaries closing and more accommodation being built; significant legislative reforms; funding reductions;  and law suits, Coroners  and Correctional Investigator reports revealing inadequacies that need to be fixed.   Key among those is ensuring safe and secure detention that conforms to international standards.   The core work of the corrections system may be being compromised by crowding and the lack of access to rehabilitative programs and reintegration supports.  Community safety is not enhanced if those released from prisons after serving their sentences are angrier, less physically and mentally well, and without the skills and support which contribute to successful reintegration.   A Parliamentary review of the rehabilitation and reintegration components of federal corrections, including current release rates by the National Parole Board, speaks to the need for a more effective graduated release regime.

 5)      Charter compliance

 Edgar Schmidt, a former Department of Justice lawyer, has filed a law suit alleging that by adopting too low a standard for assessing rights violation risks, the Department of Justice failed in its statutory obligation to alert Parliament if new government bills did not comply with the Charter and Bill of Rights.  That law suit together with the many current Charter challenges against new laws passed by Parliament with Ministerial certification of Charter compliance raises a question about how Parliament will be receiving objective and well-reasoned Charter advice.

(Ed note:  Thanks to Catherine for this concise and insightful analysis of what is ahead for the justice system in Canada.)

Huffington Post (US) – Katharina Obser.
How to Renew the Commitment to Immigration Detention Reform 

New leadership at Homeland Security is creating an opportunity for a former district attorney of New York and the New York Times to ask why continue to require that private prisons fill a daily quota of 34,000?  “It is a serious problem, and a shameful injustice, but one with [a] straightforward solution,” says former DA Robert Morganthau.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katharina-obser/immigration-detention-reform_b_4661647.html  

Prison Reform Trust 
Care not Custody is a promise worth keeping

Some 22 organizations have come together in Britain under the Trust to urge the UK government to pursue a justice policy of replacing care, especially mental health care, with prison terms.  The coalition represents over two million people across the UK.    http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/PressPolicy/News/vw/1/ItemID/202  (Readers are invited to click on the left hand box entitled Smart Justice for Women and then click on the enlarge screen for a 10 minute video (2011) on women and the justice system in the UK.)  Care not Custody web site: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/ProjectsResearch/Mentalhealth/CarenotCustody