by The Honourable Wally Oppal, QC
Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Multiculturalism
In October 2005, the B.C. justice review task force released the report of the street crime working group entitled, Beyond the Revolving Door: A New Response to Chronic Offenders.
The report identified the need to make the justice system more effective, both through the integration of the criminal justice, health and social welfare systems, as well as through changes in processing criminal cases. This report proposed justice reforms, including the creation of a community court, to alleviate the problem of street crime.
Approximately 1,500 individuals are brought to court for committing street crime offences in downtown Vancouver each year. Many are also receiving health and social service system support. The need for ongoing co-ordination and timely access is a challenge. Many are prolific offenders coming before the justice system several times a year. The offences themselves are relatively minor, but often have a significant impact on both the victims and the community. Time and significant resources are often spent on multiple court appearances and preparing cases for trial that are ultimately resolved through a guilty plea. Those who assert their right to a fair trial can face delays.
Research tells us that offenders who suffer from mental illness, substance use problems and homelessness need more than a jail sentence to rebuild their lives as healthy members of society. I am further concerned that sentences are often delayed and not meaningful or have no significant impact on either the offenders or the level of street crime in the community.
I have publicly stated my support for a community court and initiatives aimed at better integration among the justice, health and social services systems. Introduction of this court in Vancouver is underway, with a target launch date of September 2007. The community court will have the power to impose a broad range of responses, from jail sentences to rehabilitation and repayment to the community. It will better link offenders to health and social supports. It will also offer improved opportunities for community engagement.
Through changes to criminal case processing, we expect street crime prosecutions to proceed swiftly, with fewer court appearances, early case resolution and accountability for offenders. Community court will also try to address the problems that bring offenders into the court in the first place. It is my hope that the community court pilot will serve as an impetus for change throughout the criminal justice system in British Columbia.
My ministry is working closely with the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General and other partners to build a criminal justice system with effective, efficient and responsive services for these offenders – a system that has a strong connection to the public it serves. A number of initiatives, such as the Vancouver Police Department chronic offender program, the Vancouver Drug Treatment Court, the Vancouver intensive supervision unit and the province’s crystal meth action plan, are being developed to enhance integration between the justice, health and social welfare systems.
British Columbia can take pride in having one of the best criminal justice systems in the world. These changes will help to improve the way chronic offenders are managed. I look forward to working with the justice system partners to achieve future benefits through innovative and integrated approaches.
This article was published in the December 2006 issue of BarTalk. © 2006 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.