Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique called for increased restrictions in Canada’s bail laws at a House of Commons committee Wednesday, less than two months after the killing of 28-year-old Constable Grzegorz Pierzchala while one of the suspects was out on bail.
Accused people in Canada are not guaranteed bail, and by law it can be denied under specific grounds, including for reasons of public safety. In his remarks, Commissioner Carrique said courts should be required to consider a specific list of factors around public safety when making bail decisions.
In testimony to the House standing committee on justice and human rights, which began a study of Canada’s bail system on Wednesday, Commissioner Carrique referred to “serious prolific offenders” or “repeat violent offenders” as his focus.
“In many cases, incarceration is the only effective means by which to protect the public from repeat violent offenders,“ he said. “I definitely feel that our system is in desperate need of some very meaningful change.”
In the wake of Constable Pierzchala’s killing, federal Conservatives, as well as Canada’s premiers, have ramped up calls for more restrictive bail procedures. And like Commissioner Carrique‚ they’ve taken aim at repeat offenders, as well as those with firearms-related charges.
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While these politicians want more restrictive bail procedures, criminologists and legal experts have, for decades, demanded a different kind of reform: calling Canada’s bail system overly restrictive, including in its use of complicated and broad conditions of release.
In recent months, Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre has repeatedly referred to what he calls the “catch-and-release” policies of the Liberal government around bail, and has taken aim at Bill C-75, which became law in 2019.
The law acted to codify a landmark 2017 Supreme Court decision known as R v. Antic, which requires police and courts to release individuals at the earliest reasonable opportunity – and not apply unnecessary release conditions.
In mid-January, the premiers sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to “strengthen” the country’s bail system, and specifically, calling for “reverse onus” bail provisions to be expanded to include a specific firearms-related offence. (Reverse onus means that instead of the Crown needing to prove an alleged offender should be denied bail, as is usual, the accused must show why they should receive it.)
Commissioner Carrique echoed this demand Wednesday, and also said he would like to see increased accountability on sureties, referring to people who commit to being responsible for an accused person on bail.
Matthew Taylor, general counsel and director with the Justice Department’s Criminal Law Policy Section, who also testified on Wednesday, said Mr. Trudeau has committed to work with the premiers, and the department is considering their demand to expand reverse onus bail provisions.
Mr. Taylor said that while it is understandable that recent cases – referring to Mr. Pierzchala’s murder – have caused extreme concern to Canadians, the department has been hearing that the country’s bail system is “fundamentally sound.”
Accused in Canada have a Charter right not be denied bail without just cause, and for bail to be on “reasonable” terms.
Nicole Myers, an associate professor at Queen’s University who has studied bail and pretrial detention for nearly two decades, told The Globe and Mail she is concerned about the possible expansion of reverse onus provisions.
She said she doesn’t believe such provisions are effective at enhancing public safety, and not necessary, given the law already contains provisions for denying bail.
“We don’t have a lax or lenient bail system,” she said. “We simply need to look at the proportions that are in pretrial detention, the increases in rates, the increase in numbers that we’ve seen over the last 20 to 40 years.”
According to Statistics Canada, 67 per cent of people in provincial custody in 2020-21 were on remand, referring to those being held pre-trial or presentencing.
As for the effect of C-75, Ms. Myers noted that she’s not seen a “radical transformation” of how bail courts are operating.
“If anything, bail has become more restrictive, rather than less restrictive, over time,” she added.