Justice delayed should be a crime in Alberta

Criminals are allowed to remain on the streets while their cases languish on overcrowded court dockets

justice delayedRED DEER, Alta./ Troy Media/ – No society can eradicate its underbelly – the best you can expect when dealing with something as seemingly pervasive and as undeniably pernicious as crime is to manage it.

But in Alberta, where crime continues to rise, court-related efforts at control have been pathetic. We have too few courtrooms, too few judges and too little political will.

The most recent Statistics Canada crime numbers suggest the nation is on the mend. According to 2014 numbers released last summer, violent crime declined across the country for the eighth consecutive year. And serious crimes in general reached their lowest level since 1969, after 11 straight years of declines.

The exceptions to this national trend toward a more civil, peaceful and safe society? Alberta, Yukon and Prince Edward Island.

You can examine crime from any number of angles, and you can surmise any number of things about criminals and their presence in Alberta.

But the bottom line is that crime in Alberta is insidious, and you can’t just will it away.

A certain portion of it can be overcome with social reform, but we also need to make some fundamental investments in Alberta’s justice system to better manage crime.

Justice is too often delayed in this province. Criminals are allowed to remain on the streets while their cases languish on overcrowded court dockets, or slip through procedural cracks because of delays that stretch all reasonable constitutional bounds.

As a province, we have done a horrible job of ensuring the justice system has the resources to get the job done.

Part of the issue is legal representation. In November, the province announced that it would review its $66-million legal aid program in an effort to meet a growing demand. That’s a rare sign that there is a new political will in Alberta to fix the problems.

In the last decade there has been precious little of that political will. In 2013, the province tabled a report called Injecting A Sense of Urgency: A new approach to delivering justice in serious and violent crime cases. The report’s author looked at 1,100 cases that had been inordinately delayed across the province. The report found that the blame for almost all of them (98 per cent) rested with Crown’s failings or systemic issues.

Precious little has come of that exhaustive report, which offered a variety of solutions for the short and long term.

The province is also desperately short of Queen’s Bench justices, who are appointed by the federal government. Despite explosive growth in Alberta over the last 20 years, only one full-time Queen’s Bench justice has been added since 1996. Alberta has the fewest Queen’s Bench justices per capita in the country and their caseloads are staggering.

Last fall, Calgary Court of Queen’s Bench justices were booking cases two years out. Chief Justice Neil Wittmann told the Calgary Herald it was a “crisis” situation “because the public, in a country like ours, is entitled to some sort of timeliness.”

It doesn’t help that many communities, like Red Deer, are desperately short of courtrooms to handle the growing need. The Red Deer Courthouse is almost 35 years old and jammed to the rafters. It deals with a local population that has doubled in the last three decades (never mind that provincial courthouses in Lacombe, Sylvan Lake and Innisfail have been closed in recent years, sending more cases to Red Deer).

In Red Deer, every effort has been made to find a solution. Traffic court was moved to a local hotel two years ago. And the city has offered to swap the existing courthouse for other land downtown so a new courthouse could be built as cheaply and quickly as possible. The issue has been discussed for 20 years (during which time three government reports were commissioned and then ignored), and it has been front and centre in this city for four years or more.

The previous Conservative government waffled repeatedly; who knows where the issue sits on the New Democrat priority list. In the meantime, Red Deer spends almost $800,000 a year to maintain the former RCMP office on the site now proposed for a new courthouse.

Justice must be timely and fair. To be otherwise is to punish both the accused and the victims, and diminish the rule of law.

Every time the delivery of justice is delayed, trust in the system is attacked at the foundation. And the pernicious crime in this province is allowed to flourish.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past. John is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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