Major changes to Canada’s criminal justice system could be on their way. In March, the Department of Justice completed its reporton the consultations that it has been conducting across Canada, which have focused on a broad range of important and potentially transformative topics, including restorative justice.
Peacebuilders participated in this process by making a formal submission in January. In a way, it is encouraging to see stakeholders and experts across the country agree on so many of the issues that we identified, but we also know that this reflects a grim reality across the country. Too many vulnerable Canadians are being harmed by systems which are often not only ineffective, but are actually perpetuating criminal behaviour and marginalization.
The report (which does not necessarily reflect the government’s position) indicates broad agreement that restorative justice should be used more extensively, and that sustained funding is required to expand opportunities for diversion. We agree that alternative measures should be the new norm, including for more serious offences where appropriate. Even more importantly, underlying causes of crime like poverty, addiction, mental health and housing issues need to be adequately addressed without resorting to charges or relying on the criminal justice system. We hope to see the government explicitly state its agreement with this consensus in the near future.
The report also mentions the positive impact of pre-charge screening, which ensures that a Crown lawyer always reviews a suspect’s case before someone is charged. This system reduces unnecessary charges (and the unnecessary records, stigma, and marginalization that result). The report mentions the success of pre-charge screening in New Brunswick. It is important to add that Quebec and British Columbia also use pre-charge screening and typically have lower crime rates than the rest of Canada. Whether the federal government legislates on this issue or encourages its use through study and reporting, we agree that pre-charge screening is an important reform that would benefit the youth we serve.
Unfortunately, a major gap in these consultations so far has been the lack of adequate, separate consideration of the youth justice system. The report glosses over the important, constitutionally recognized distinction between the youth and adult criminal justice systems. Aside from a brief recommendation to promote existing tools like youth justice committees, there are no recommendations specific to youth between the ages of 12 and 17. We raised several possible areas of improvement and were disappointed to see them generalized outside of the youth context.
The report makes it clear that this process will not be completed during the current government’s mandate. That creates a risk that all of this important work will be shelved after the next election. It is important for the current government to pursue some of the most important reforms immediately, and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. At minimum, we would like to see the establishment of a permanent federal body to study and recommend criminal justice reforms, with a mandate to consult stakeholders and experts on an ongoing basis. This would help to preserve this process moving forward, and ensure that youth justice stakeholders are properly consulted. In addition, we hope to see all federal parties, including the governing party, commit to continuing this process after the 2019 election.
Despite these gaps and challenges, it is encouraging to be part of an important transformation toward more fair, efficient, and effective youth and adult criminal justice systems. It is clear that restorative justice should be the guiding principle for future reforms, and we are optimistic that it will be.
Rob Mason was Peacebuilders’ Public Interest Articling Fellow (2017-2018). Rob graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law in 2017, with a specialization in law and social justice. Prior to law school he studied international relations at the University of Toronto. Rob has been active in various volunteer activities, including PBSC placements at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre. Rob has been published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, and the Globe and Mail, among other publications. Rob is driven to better integrate social justice considerations into law and policy, and thus to contribute positively to social change.
This blog is intended to provide a platform for a range of perspectives on restorative justice and Canada’s youth justice system. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of Peacebuilders.