The Crown prosecutor’s office in northern Canada will receive a budget boost even as the federal government pledges to reduce the number of Indigenous people behind bars.
This week’s federal budget in part promises $23.5 million to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) “to support victims of violence by increasing prosecutorial capacity in the territories.”
Bolstering the Crown’s staff could reduce the number of plea deals – some have been quite controversial for their leniency – and see more trials take place. That would generally result in stiffer sentences for accused people found guilty after a trial.
But the proposed PPSC cash increase is in a section of the budget document that addresses chronic overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
“Building on recent actions to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system through Bill C-22, Budget 2021 proposes to … improve access to justice for Indigenous people and support the development of an Indigenous justice strategy to address systemic discrimination and the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system,” states the budget document.
In addition to the $23.5 million – which is spread over three years – the budget includes similar bundles of money to help Indigenous families navigate the family justice system and for engagement with Indigenous people to develop legislation that addresses systemic barriers in the criminal justice system.
A defence lawyer who represents people accused of crimes across the territory says the money should be directed to the social problems that drive crime, not for more prosecutors to jail offenders.
“How exactly is hiring more prosecutors to put even more people in jail going to solve the problem, when the [territorial government] cannot even offer substance abuse and trauma treatment locally?” asked Peter Harte, whose practice is located in Yellowknife.
“Prosecutions are intended to prove culpability and punish culpable behaviour. Prosecutors do not offer counselling or therapy.”
Harte noted the Northwest Territories has the highest crime rate in Canada and one of the highest incarceration rates.
“The social problems that drive crime continue to be ignored,” he said, adding another lawyer suggested to him that the federal proposal is like building more jails to keep people out of prison.
In 2019, the latest year for which data is available, the NWT was behind only Nunavut in increases reported in the National Violent Crime Severity Index. Sexual assaults and severe physical assaults went up, most driven by alcohol or drug abuse.
The NWT’s crime rates “are for the most part, particularly for violent crime, the highest in Canada,” said Harte. “The stats suggest that prosecuting and punishing this behaviour is not having an effect. Maybe that $23.5 million could be more productively invested.”
Some judges have publicly expressed concern both over the number of plea deals, soft sentences, and dropped charges in deals made in exchange for a guilty plea.
In June 2020, a Territorial Court judge said he had no choice but to accept an “unfit” plea deal for an Inuvik man who punched his girlfriend in the face and kicked an RCMP officer in the ribs.
During a sentencing hearing for a male offender, Judge Donovan Molloy said Supreme Court directives restrict his ability to reject joint sentencing recommendations.
“I am required to endorse this joint submission despite being of the opinion that the sentence is unfit and fails to protect society, in particular victims of intimate partner violence – [which] is especially concerning in this jurisdiction, given our dockets are rife with matters involving female victims of intimate partner violence,” said Molloy in a case that involved a serious assault on a partner.
Around the same time, Molloy reprimanded a Crown prosecutor and defence lawyer as he begrudgingly accepted a “demonstrably unfit” joint sentence recommendation for a man with a lengthy record of violence against women.
Last week, an NWT Supreme Court judge said she reluctantly accepted a joint recommendation in a plea deal that saw the Crown drop a charge of voyeurism in exchange for the guilty plea to sexual assault.
Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane conceded to Justice Shannon Smallwood that the joint submission was a “lenient, but fit” sentence for a crime he characterized as “abhorrent.”
Canada’s legal system would collapse if every case went to trial, but the process of exchanging guilty pleas for agreed outcomes can raise questions.
A judge previously told Cabin Radio the prosecutor’s office could be overworked and needs to make plea deals to clear cases.
The NWT’s chief prosecutor, Alex Godfrey, told Cabin Radio he might be consulted on exactly how the new funding is allocated – if it is passed in Parliament – but the final directives would come from Ottawa.
“I am not sure I agree there is a direct connection between any future funding to our office and any comments from the Court regarding our file management,” said Godfrey.
“I think those are two distinct issues. I have no comments on what the judiciary’s opinions are with regard to resolving matters.
“Each case is particular to the circumstances before it and there are many nuances to each file. We treat each file with the professionalism that the public expects of our organization.”
Clarification: April 23, 2021 – 8:55 MT. The paragraph referring to a judge’s comments has been slightly altered to better reflect the original conversation and more information has been added for context.