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opinion

Mark Neufeld is chief of the Calgary Police Service. He wrote this with the six other member chiefs of the Community Safety Knowledge Alliance, representing Victoria, Delta, Edmonton, Regina, Peel, and Sudbury police services.

As police chiefs with experience in many Canadian cities, we believe we need to address a serious problem: the release into our communities of too many people who have histories of repeated serious criminal violence. In recent weeks we have seen the horrific impact of that failure in our justice systems.

A strict criteria for those who must be given the greatest scrutiny when seeking bail, might be as follows: if you have previously used a weapon of any type to commit a violent crime, you are extremely unlikely to win a release from custody on subsequent charges for violent crimes involving weapons. Period.

Such a legal criterion would avoid the ineffective and unfair outcomes our bail system permits today. The vast majority of people being held on remand do not have a history of violence. A near majority of them will never be convicted of the charge on which they are being held. Their treatment in the judicial system should reflect that.

Just as releasing repeat violent offenders undermines public confidence, so does applying the same tests to those with no history of violence. It undermines our faith in the fairness of our system. Canadians know what’s fair and reasonable: putting the non-violent and the repeatedly violent criminals in the same basket is neither fair nor reasonable.

While upholding the constitutional rights of the person charged, and respecting the principles of a presumption of innocence and the right to reasonable bail, we must make several changes to how the bail system operates in Canada. Historical patterns of violent behaviour are typically a good predictor of future conduct. Therefore, among the highest priorities in reforming this critical piece of our justice system must be to ensure that release requests for our most serious repeat violent offenders are given the utmost scrutiny.

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Today we have a test for those previously convicted of violence that requires them to demonstrate why they should not be held in custody. Sadly, “reverse onus,” as it is called, is applied inconsistently, and in several recent cases, it did not prevent a violent criminal from being released.

Provincial attorneys-general can set out clear direction for Crown prosecutors as to the standards they are expected to meet where violent offenders are concerned under the existing provisions of the Criminal Code. They should do so urgently.

Justice Minister David Lametti has said he will organize an urgent meeting on the issue with his provincial and territorial counterparts, a move that is welcome. The federal government should also quickly seek broad consensus among the parties in Parliament to pass amendments to the Criminal Code that state clearly that there is a presumption of pre-trial detention for serious repeat violent offenders.

Every community in Canada, regardless of the racial and ethnic characteristics of its inhabitants, wants to ensure that violent offenders are off the streets of their neighbourhood. Every Canadian community.

We have not reached the levels of community violence tragically affecting so many American cities, but we do have a very specific and growing problem. It requires urgent and precise attention by every professional involved: police officers, Crown attorneys, judges and governments.

But make no mistake, there is a careful balance required. While we must protect society from our most violent offenders, we must also take care not to upend progress made in recent years on using alternatives to pre-trial custody for most non-violent lower-risk individuals. Moreover, the police and others within the public-health and human-services sectors must continue to collaborate on upstream preventative efforts that address root causes of crime. Over time, this collaboration will improve community safety and well-being.

We can reach a broad consensus on who the potential attackers are that we need to focus on, and how they should be managed. If we can make rapid progress in each jurisdiction to ensure repeatedly violent criminals are not walking freely, every Canadian will feel – and be – safer.