The British Columbia’s government says the first of a dozen new teams of Crown prosecutors, provincial corrections staff members and police officers will begin targeting repeat violent offenders in certain cities next month, as part of a three-year plan to tackle random street assaults.
A number of these assaults over the past year have shocked the public and made the problem a political issue in the province. The new initiative is intended to better tailor punishments to this group of offenders, including by denying them bail, while also helping them access much-needed mental health and drug treatments.
The plan was first announced by Premier David Eby in November. On Tuesday, Mike Farnworth, the province’s Solicitor-General and its lead on the repeat-offender file, for the first time revealed the $25-million program’s timeline, budget and staffing numbers. But he couldn’t say which communities would be the first to see the new teams.
“The funding is over three years, so it’s going to take some time to roll them out across the province,” he told reporters.
The 12 teams will be made up of a total of 21 Crown prosecutors, as well as 55 legal support staff members, probation officers and correction officials. Two teams will eventually operate on Vancouver Island and four out of the Lower Mainland, including Vancouver and Surrey, with the remaining six to be based in other parts of the province. Mr. Farnworth added that he expects one of the teams to deploy soon in the northern hub of Prince George, which his government considers a priority area.
This approach was first used on a trial basis by a previous B.C. government, but the pilot project ended a decade ago. Its revival was recommended last year in an expert report commissioned by the B.C. government.
The program will involve identifying the most active repeat violent offenders. The new teams will then decide whether to ask judges to deny those offenders bail. If release is more appropriate, the teams will help create plans for drug or mental-health treatment. Probation and police officers will closely monitor each case to make sure the conditions of release are followed.
There is no reliable tally of the number of people who repeatedly attack others in public settings across B.C. A group of mayors estimated last year that there could be as few as 200. A recent Globe and Mail investigation uncovered systemic gaps that allow a disruptive few – most of them dealing with homelessness, mental-health issues, addictions or all three personal crises at once – to continue assaulting strangers.
The Globe found that B.C.’s overwhelmed justice system often releases violent offenders after brief periods of incarceration, even in cases where they don’t – or are unable to – comply with bail or probation conditions. The investigation highlighted the long criminal history of Mohammed Majidpour, who has repeatedly been convicted of shoplifting offences and random assaults. His latest assault and shoplifting charges are still winding their way through court, with another hearing scheduled for next week.
B.C.’s Liberal Party has criticized the NDP government’s plan as being a “baby step” toward curbing the random attacks making headlines in many cities. Mike Morris, the B.C. Liberals’ public safety critic, told The Globe in a previous interview that Prince George alone needs four or five of these dedicated Crown prosecutors. At least one should be stationed at each of the dozens of courts across the province, he said.
Elenore Sturko, a former RCMP officer who is now the B.C. Liberal critic for mental health, addiction, recovery and education, questioned the government’s timeline. “Communities across the province are now learning it could be three years for them to receive a special team of prosecutors, which I’m sure is going to be disappointing for people,” she said.
As a way of tackling problems with repeat and dangerous offenders, B.C. and other provinces recently formally requested that Ottawa reverse the onus in bail hearings related to cases where suspects are caught with loaded prohibited or restricted weapons. Federal Justice Minister David Lametti said last week his government is considering this revision, which would place the burden on those offenders to tell courts why they shouldn’t be detained.
Mr. Farnworth also acknowledged Tuesday that B.C.’s government is still struggling to gather case information that would enable it to assess whether new Crown guidelines on bail for repeat violent offenders are working or even being followed. The guidelines, issued by the province in November, directed prosecutors to seek detention of repeat violent offenders when they are charged with additional crimes against people, or crimes committed with weapons, unless prosecutors are satisfied the risk to the public can be minimized by bail rules.
“Within the ministry, they are working in terms of how we ensure we’ve got the data required to show that we’re making progress,” he said.
BC Prosecution Service spokesperson Dan McLaughlin told The Globe on Monday that the service had five weeks of this information manually pulled from its “fairly dated electronic information management system,” but that the set of data was too small to support any clear conclusions about the effects of the provincial bail directive.
Mr. McLaughlin said provincial staff members intend to continue gathering these data throughout the year.
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria