A pair of experts commissioned by the British Columbia government to study repeat offenders and random stranger attacks is recommending legislative changes, investments in mental-health programs and a new kind of involuntary rehabilitation facility for those who present a risk of harm to others.
The 28 action items together present a plan aimed at diverting repeat offenders from the criminal-justice system and addressing the underlying causes of the offending. Health researcher Amanda Butler along with former Vancouver Police deputy chief and former Metro Vancouver Transit Police chief Doug LePard released the recommendations in addition to an executive summary on Wednesday; their full 150-page report is expected later this month.
The recommendations come five months after B.C. mayors contacted the province with concerns about repeat and violent crime in their communities.
The authors call on the province to research the potential for advocating with the federal government for legislation similar to the Britain’s “restricted patient” laws, which would give courts more sentencing options outside of the criminal-justice system.
Dr. Butler said Canada has a not-criminally-responsible regime but requires a very high threshold of mental severity, while jurisdictions such as Britain “have concepts such as diminished responsibility, whereby you can acknowledge that the severity of somebody’s illness is in fact implicated in their offending behaviour.”
The authors also recommend the creation of “low secure units” – facilities for people with complex mental-health and substance-use needs and are at high risk of harm to others. Dr. Butler emphasized that this is different from compulsory substance-use treatment, an idea that has been floated in the province and “doesn’t necessarily lead to improved health outcomes.”
Placement in a low secure unit should only be considered after all voluntary options have been exhausted, and accountability mechanisms should be in place to ensure compliance with the Mental Health Act, the report said.
Other suggestions include a significant investment in publicly funded programs for people with acquired brain injuries and developmental disabilities; the expansion of Indigenous and First Nations courts; and the reformation of legislation to improve information-sharing between health, justice and social services agencies.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said his government would fast-track three recommendations: reinstating a prolific offender management program that was shelved in 2012; creating a dedicated provincial committee to co-ordinate service planning for people with complex health needs that come into contact with the law; and a pilot program to address recidivism among First Nations people, as proposed by the BC First Nations Justice Council.
Mr. Farnworth said the report confirms the complexity of the challenge, and “just how much more we have to do.”
Colin Basran, Kelowna mayor and co-chair of the BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus, or BCUMC, welcomes the recommendations, which he believes will make communities safer.
“The majority of things that we as municipalities have been calling for, or asking for, are in these recommendations,” he said.
The authors said many stakeholders believe a solution to repeat offending is more aggressive prosecution and sentencing, but said sentencing is in the hands of an independent judiciary bound by legislation and precedent. There is evidence that short custodial sentences cause harm and do not reduce recidivism, while longer sentences conflict with Canadian sentencing laws, including the principle of proportionality, they said.
“Long-term reductions in crime require that the provincial government invest significantly in addressing the systems-level issues that contribute to offending, including systemic racism, poverty, inadequate health services, food insecurity and housing unaffordability,” the authors wrote.
The BCUMC had contacted the province in April indicating that, “despite overall decreases in provincial and community crime rates, shifting crime patterns during the pandemic were particularly hurting downtown retail areas,” according to a B.C. government news release at the time. That letter followed similar advocacy by the mayors of Terrace, Trail, Quesnel and other smaller, rural communities.
The province hired Dr. Butler and Mr. LePard to investigate the issue of prolific offenders and report back by Sept. 2. In late August, Mr. LePard and Dr. Butler requested an extension “due to extensive public feedback and the complexity of the issues.”
Earlier this month, Peter Juk, assistant deputy attorney-general and head of the BC Prosecution Service, issued a lengthy statement saying that the criminal-justice system, acting alone, lacks the capacity, tools and legal authority to remedy underlying social problems and to fill the gaps left by other sectors of society.
“The public deserves to receive the real facts: about the criminal justice process; about the strict legal requirements imposed by Parliament and the Supreme Court of Canada; and about the real limits on what Crown Counsel (and the criminal justice system) can and cannot do to address broader social issues like mental health and the addiction crisis,” Mr. Juk said.
Overall crime rates in B.C. “are about as low as they have been for many years.”
The authors of Wednesday’s release, however, said that official reported crime statistics “may not provide an accurate picture of crime trends in B.C.”
In the first three months of 2022, 40.5 per cent of non-emergency calls to the Vancouver Police Department went unanswered owing to lack of resources, the authors said.
As well, unprovoked stranger attacks in 2021-2022 increased by 35 per cent compared with 2019-2020.