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Several Ontario legal experts are challenging Premier Doug Ford’s push for the federal government to limit bail for people accused of violent crimes, advocating instead for the province to strengthen supervision programs to ensure compliance with release conditions.

Legal advocacy groups and police officials shared their positions with Ontario politicians over two days of hearings as part of a government-directed study on bail reform for people accused of violent offences, such as those with a firearm. Ontario’s justice policy committee, made up of MPPs across party lines, will now craft a report with recommendations to be presented in the legislature.

The hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday followed renewed calls by the Ontario government and the police community to the federal government for a stricter system in the wake of several violent crimes, among them the December shooting death of Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Constable Greg Pierzchala, where one of the accused was out on bail.

Randall McKenzie, charged with first-degree murder, was prohibited from possessing any firearms as of 2018 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.

Trudeau says Ottawa looking at bail reform after letter from premiers demands action

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Last month, all 13 premiers sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for Criminal Code amendments to keep more people in custody as they await trial. The premiers are seeking a reverse onus for those charged with possession of a loaded prohibited or restricted firearm, requiring them to prove why detention isn’t justified. The requests are supported by many police organizations, such as the OPP and the Toronto Police Service.

Mr. Trudeau responded publicly days later that his government is “carefully” looking at the proposals from the provinces.

Asked Wednesday what his government is doing while it waits for a response from the federal government, Mr. Ford said he’s looking to quickly “take action” but didn’t provide any specifics.

“We need to put the bad folks away in jail and not let them back on the street so easily,” he said at an unrelated press conference in Brampton. “We need to do a better job and anyone caught with a gun and a heinous crime, they should be going away for a long time.”

But justice advocates and defence lawyers opposed to the request argue that adding further bail restrictions will simply lead to more people being incarcerated prior to a trial, countering the presumption of innocence under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

They are instead calling on the government to make enhancements to the bail system within its jurisdiction, including the introduction of a provincewide surveillance program for all people on bail to ensure release conditions are being met and people are brought back before the justice system if there is a breach.

Removing excessive delays in waiting for a hearing should be the province’s priority, Ontario Bar Association representative Daniel Goldbloom told the committee, citing cases where dozens of organized crime charges were thrown out and never proceeded to trial because of the length of time spent waiting for a bail decision. Under the Criminal Code, those charged have the right to a bail hearing within 24 hours of arrest.

Anne-Marie McElroy, who presented to the committee on behalf of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said the tools currently in place around granting bail are sufficient and the province should focus on providing more money to the justice system to improve operations.

“Supporting community resources, funding the justice system in a way that allows for access to bail in a reasonable time and allowing the justice participants, particularly the Crowns and the Justices of the Peace, the ability to have the time and resources to properly deal with these files,” she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Police officials concurred that some immediate actions could be taken by the province to improve the system, but argued that more people accused of violent crimes should be held prior to trial to reduce cases of reoffending. Police Association of Ontario president Mark Baxter told the committee the current rules are failing to keep communities safe.

“Police officers and our impacted community members can no longer take comfort that once someone is known to be a danger to the public is arrested, they will not encounter that person again,” he said.

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