The premiers of all 10 provinces and the three territories joined forces this week to urge Ottawa to toughen the country’s bail system. Their urgent plea, sent in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was an understandable response to the murder of Constable Greg Pierzchala, an Ontario Provincial Police officer who was gunned down during an otherwise routine roadside stop on Dec. 27.
One of the two people accused of first-degree murder in Constable Pierzchala’s death was facing assault and weapons-related charges from a previous case, but was free on bail at the time of the shooting.
“The justice system fundamentally needs to keep anyone who poses a threat to public safety off the streets,” the premiers’ letter reads. “And this starts with meaningful changes to the Criminal Code, an area solely within the federal government’s jurisdiction.”
The premiers are not wrong about that. The public must have confidence that the criminal justice system is able to identify dangerous violent offenders and keep them behind bars until their trial. To that end, the decision to release the suspect in question should be reviewed.
But the premiers should also keep in mind the old adage – be careful what you wish for. Simplistic, tough-on-crime responses to similar tragedies in the past put in motion a pendulum that has now swung in the other direction, and which may have made it easier for the suspect in this case to gain their liberty while awaiting trial.
Canada has wrestled for decades with a bail system that many experts, as well as the Supreme Court of Canada, believe is overcautious and risk-averse to a fault, and which is undermining people’s fundamental right to the presumption of innocence.
One federal study from 2015 pinned the blame on an evolution in the mentality of the judges, crown prosecutors and justices of the peace at the heart of the bail system. Wary of the public backlash when a person commits a violent crime while out on bail, they have demanded overly strict conditions and sureties that have made it more difficult for even non-violent offenders to obtain their freedom pretrial.
As a consequence, on any given day in Canada, the majority of the inmates in provincial jails are innocent of any crime and are instead being held on pretrial detention. In 2018-19, two out of three provincial and territorial inmates were on remand, according to Statistics Canada.
This has come at a huge financial cost, as it is magnitudes more expensive to hold a suspect in prison than it is to give them their liberty and set a trial date. It has also contributed to the backlog of cases in Canada’s clogged courts.
Above all, the system is unfair to minor offenders who are freed on bail with unreasonable conditions that are doomed to failure, such as ordering a drug addict not to take drugs. Too often, a person charged with a minor offence winds up in jail facing new charges related to breach of bail conditions, trapping them in the proverbial revolving door of justice.
The pendulum started moving in the opposite direction in 2017, when the Supreme Court ruled that federal bail provisions were being applied inconsistently across the country, and that some suspects’ right to presumed innocence was being compromised by unduly harsh bail conditions that were being rubber-stamped without regard to the individual details of a case.
That in turn led to Bill C-75, a 2019 law that, among other things, codified principles designed to ensure the presumption of innocence at bail hearings and make pretrial release more easy to obtain.
It is impossible to know right now whether those changes had a role in the release of a suspect who was refused bail after being charged with a violent crime, was then granted it on review, and is now a suspect in the first-degree murder of Constable Pierzchala.
Federal Justice Minister David Lametti said this week he is prepared to work with the provinces to find out whether Bill C-75 “might be a factor.”
That makes sense. But everyone involved should remember that tougher bail conditions are what brought the pendulum out of equilibrium in the first place. Ottawa needs to find ways to protect the public from potentially dangerous criminals while also protecting the Constitutional right to a presumption of innocence – and the bail system that embodies that right.