An Ontario legislative committee is calling on the federal and provincial governments to implement bail reforms, including making release more restrictive for repeat and serious offenders.
The province’s standing committee on justice policy – comprised of MPPs across party lines – issued bail reform recommendations to both levels of government in a report released Monday, after two days of hearings earlier this year with testimonies from police associations, justice advocates and legal experts.
Calls to improve the bail system reignited after the December shooting death of Ontario Provincial Police Constable Greg Pierzchala. One of the accused was out on bail.
In its report, the committee urged the federal government to implement a reverse onus on bail for the possession of a loaded prohibited or restricted firearm, which would require the accused in these cases to prove why pretrial detention isn’t justified. This request was previously made by the country’s premiers in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in January.
The committee further requests that reverse onus obligations be expanded for suspects who are deemed “chronic offenders,” based on a set number of offences committed over a certain period of time. It also calls on Ottawa to mandate that bail hearings for the most serious offences are heard by judges of the provincial court, rather than justices of the peace who may not have formal legal training, and allow judges to increase parole eligibility for two-thirds of a sentence when an offender has used a firearm in a congregate setting.
The Editorial Board: When it comes to bail reform, be careful what you wish for
Randall McKenzie, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Constable Pierzchala, was prohibited from possessing any firearms, after he was charged with several offences, including assault of a police officer. Mr. McKenzie was released on bail and a warrant was issued for his arrest after he failed to attend a September court date.
Diana Ebadi, press secretary to federal Justice Minister David Lametti, said the minister will take time to study the report and he is hoping to introduce bail reform legislation before the end of the spring session in June. Mr. Lametti met with justice ministers from across the country this month to discuss their requests.
“We have been clear that a variety of options are under consideration, including new reverse onuses,” Ms. Ebadi said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.
To address concerns around bail monitoring, the committee is calling on Premier Doug Ford’s government to consider strengthening releases involving sureties. There also isn’t a province-run centralized bail compliance program or set of standards, which many presenters to the committee called for, though the committee didn’t make such a recommendation in its report.
Nicole Myers, an associate professor of sociology at Queen’s University with a research focus on bail and pretrial detention, said she’s “deeply concerned” about any reforms that increase the amount of people in custody without being convicted of an offence and any impact to the presumption of innocence as outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Custody is extraordinarily expensive,” she said in an interview. “When we remove people from the community, that is incredibly destabilizing to employment, access to children, education, housing and so we’re disrupting the very things that we know lend stability to peoples’ lives.”
Other recommendations to the province include “providing more resources” for prosecutors to conduct bail hearings in a timely fashion to address backlogs and increased training for justices of the peace. According to Statistics Canada data from 2021, 77 per cent of adults in custody in Ontario are awaiting trial.