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Ontario's criminal justice system is chaotic even on a good day. Jails are filled with people awaiting trial, getting to trial can take years, and the costs – both financial and social – are staggering. And yet crime rates have been falling steadily, to the point that Ontario has the lowest violent crime rate in Canada.

A new study by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute offers valuable insight into why these contradictory phenomena are occurring in Canada's largest province. The study, which evaluates and grades the criminal justice of every province and territory, suggests that one big part of the problem is that police in Ontario are laying too many charges that lead nowhere.

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In Ontario, 43 per cent of charges laid are ultimately stayed or withdrawn. Of those that do go to trial, the conviction rate is just 55 per cent. Ontario has by far the lowest conviction rate in the country, and the highest number, again by far, of cases that are dropped.

In Quebec, where police must get the approval of a Crown prosecutor before laying charges, a mere 8.6 per cent of charges are stayed or withdrawn, and the conviction rate is 75 per cent. In British Columbia, where the Crown similarly has to approve charges, only 29 per cent of charges are dropped and the conviction rate is 70 per cent.

Ontario clearly has what the report refers to as a "justice deficit." Each year, thousands of people are charged, held in custody awaiting bail and court appearances, forced to shoulder expensive legal costs while simultaneously generating enormous legal costs for the state – and yet fewer than one in three are found guilty of a crime.

Ontario justice officials clearly need to start asking some questions about how their system works, and whether it needs to change. Should police continue to be able to lay charges on the spot? Or should Ontario adopt the Quebec and B.C. models, where police must run their evidence past a Crown prosecutor to get approval to lay charges?

Justice ministry officials have argued in the past that separating the investigative role of police from the prosecutorial role of the Crown provides a system of checks and balances. Perhaps. But better police-prosecutor co-operation has clearly reduced the number of unnecessary charges in Quebec and B.C. At the same time, there's no sign the approach has led to undercharging of actual offenders. It's time Ontario took a serious look at how criminal charges are laid.

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