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Justice Minister Peter MacKay speaks during a discussion on a Canadian victims’ bill of rights in Ottawa on Sept. 5, 2013.

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

Canada's Justice Minister says the federal government will look closely at the country's system for granting bail amid growing concern about the number of prisoners held on remand across the country.

Peter MacKay said he is aware of concerns about the denial of bail to some prisoners, as well as the conditions those accused of a crime are often required to meet if they are granted release before a trial. Mr. MacKay, who took over the justice portfolio in July, said he will need more time to become familiar with the issue, but added, "this is a specific area that we intend to look at."

The number of accused inmates held on remand across Canada nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, a trend that is contributing to prison population growth at a time when overall crime rates are falling. It costs significantly more to incarcerate people than it does to supervise them when they are on bail, and the growth in remand numbers is adding to backlogs in provincial courts.

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Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Mr. MacKay said it is too soon to determine how the federal government might address the issue. "I want to get all that information before me, prior to commenting on … what the next steps are as far as legislation, if any," he said.

Mr. MacKay spoke with reporters before holding a roundtable discussion with victims' advocates in Ottawa. The meeting was part of a series of consultations on the federal government's planned victims' bill of rights, which it expects to introduce this fall.

The John Howard Society of Ontario, which advocates on behalf of prisoners, released a report Thursday calling on the province to reform its bail system in an effort to reduce pressure on remand centres and prisons and ensure those charged with a crime have reasonable access to a bail hearing.

The report recommended ending the practice of attaching bail conditions to prisoners' release that require them to abstain from drugs and alcohol – a factor that sometimes means those with addictions are likely to rack up additional criminal charges. It also suggested Ontario revisit the provincial policy manual for prosecutors to put greater emphasis on release and the presumption of innocence.

A spokesman for Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney-General said the province is aware of the need to improve bail processes and is working on a plan for reform.

Martin Friedland is a University of Toronto law professor whose research helped lead to the last major reform of the country's bail system about 50 years ago. He said important changes were made when the federal government passed the Bail Reform Act in 1971, including clear instructions that an accused individual should be released under the least onerous terms possible under the circumstances. However, the burden of proof later shifted from the prosecutor to the accused, he said, and it is increasingly up to the accused individual to show why he or she should be released.

Prof. Friedland said Ontario's remand problems are among the most severe in Canada, but other provinces and territories are also facing challenges. "There is a remand problem in the numbers across the country," he said.

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