Many clergy have complained of contemporary society’s loss of faith. Attendance at religious service is down. Faith in the Almighty is considered quaint, antiquated or – by the more rabidly atheist – downright stupid and offensive. Yet rare is the church where doomsday promises of Armageddon-induced hellfire have sparked a mass return to the foot of the altar. I therefore find it peculiar when Federal Justice Minister, Peter MacKay, bemoans Canadians’ loss of faith in the criminal justice system while in the same breath repeating his oft-made promise to rain a fury of new tough-on-crime hail from on-high upon the land.
In a recent speech to University of Calgary law students, the Minister opined on the sensitive and difficult subject of dealing with the not-criminally-responsible (NCR) mentally ill accused saying, “We must ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our profession. Do Canadians have faith in the justice system, and what changes must we make to increase public faith and confidence in our system?” Does a system that reviews those incarcerated for mental-illness induced crimes every three years rather than the previous annual assessment inspire increased public confidence? When an NCR offender is deemed psychiatrically fit to begin reintegration back into society, does a further period of forced custody send a message of faith and confidence in our justice system or does it instead proclaim the triumph of fear and vengeance over reason and compassion?
It is hard to take seriously complaints of a loss of faith in the justice system from a government that has brought us its fair share of justice-related gaffes. Who can forget Vic Toews as Public Safety Minister (now His Honour Justice Toews of the Manitoba court of Queens Bench) suggesting that Canadians had to choose between granting authorities easier access to personal telecommunication information or supporting child pornographers? I didn’t feel my faith in the justice system swelling at those comments.
Did you feel a sudden restoration of faith in justice when Stockwell Day cited the statistic of rising unreported crime (!) to justify a $5.1 billion expansion of our Federal prison system? Sure, reported crime is down but what about all those crimes happening across the country that nobody wants to tell police about? We in the Government have good reason to believe that imaginary crime is waaaay up and we need a massive expansion of our federal prison system so that we can put all those unreported criminals into jail longer. Faith and confidence indeed.
Recent amendments forcing Judges to impose $100+ “surcharges” on all offenders regardless of their ability to pay or mental capacity don’t speak to efforts to bolster faith in a well-reasoned justice system capable of balancing the legitimate concerns of victims with the realities of financially destitute offenders. Ordering a schizophrenic street kid to pay $100 when convicted of mischief to property delivers no message of faith and confidence. It undermines sanity and logic, bringing the administration of justice into disrepute.
Our Government regularly complains about activist out-of-touch judges meddling into Parliament’s bailiwick by tossing out mandatory minimum sentences or invalidating Criminal Code amendments, yet over a decade in power it is that same Conservative Government that has appointed every Superior Court judge across the country. When an ‘activist’ Supreme Court unanimously kicked Canada’s entire prostitution legislation to the curb, five out of the nine Justices were Harper appointees. Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, even Conservative jurists think the tough-on-crime agenda is failing Canadians?
Perhaps if the claims of a widespread loss of faith in the criminal justice system are legitimate, a good hard look in the mirror is called for. I echo Minister MacKay’s desire to shore up the faith of Canadians in our justice system but I choose to support that laudable goal in a much different fashion.
Rather than disparaging with politically motivated sound bites the very same judges our government continues to appoint, the Minister could lead by example by demonstrating a desire to pay heed to the increasing messages from the bench decrying mandatory minimum penalties and uncollectable surcharges.
The time has come to support not just the principle of open courts but the implementation of it by encouraging (or perhaps even legislating) the introduction of cameras in our nations’ courtrooms. Canadians should be encouraged to watch not only the scandalous and salacious cases that inhabit our courtrooms from time-to-time but the daily drudgery of human misery tinged with a hope for the future that shuffles through Provincial plea courts from coast-to-coast.
Call out the system’s failures but celebrate its successes with equal fervor. If encouraging faith in the justice system were genuinely a priority for Mr. MacKay, he could start by reminding Canadians that crime across nearly every statistic is down meaningfully year over year every year for decades with a particularly stark decrease noted just in 2013 alone. Despite the numbers, our Federal Government continues to resort to bombastic fear mongering in decrying the evil that purportedly lurks around every corner. Canadians from St. Johns to Vancouver of all ages and socio-economic stripes are safer today than they have ever been in recent recorded history. They are less likely to be victims of crime than in nearly any other country on earth. That’s a system that, despite its warts and bruises, is worthy of the public’s faith and confidence.