Canada proposes new bail bill despite lack of supporting data, minister says

FILE PHOTO: Canada's Minister of Justice and Attorney General Lametti speaks in parliament during Question Period in Ottawa

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's government has introduced a bill seeking to make it harder for some repeat offenders of violent crimes to get bail even as the federal justice minister says it lacks data to show violent crimes committed by people on bail are on the rise, while pre-trial detentions make up a growing share of adults in provincial and territorial jails.

When asked if the measure is about perception or reality, Justice Minister David Lametti told Reuters in an interview that pursuing this legislation is "probably a mixture of both." He said there are no statistics available showing more people are committing violent offences while on bail.

"There are data gaps" that the provinces have committed to filling, he said, adding "that's a fair point" when asked if his government was pursuing policy without underlying data.

"It can't stop us from acting in the meantime."

The bill introduced this week comes after multiple high-profile violent crimes that police allege were committed by people on bail, including the killing of a police officer late last year. These prompted the provinces to push the federal government to tighten bail rules, Lametti said.

But he said the bill is targeted enough not to contravene the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which gives a person charged with an offence the right not to be denied reasonable bail "without just cause."

The bill puts the burden on accused to prove they should be released awaiting trial, rather than on prosecutors to prove they should not, for crimes including repeat violent offences involving weapons, some firearms charges and repeat charges of intimate partner violence.

It would also require courts to consider whether the accused's record includes convictions for violent offences.

The bill needs to be passed in Parliament, where the governing Liberals have a minority and require support of another party.

Some provinces and police associations welcomed the bill, with Police Association of Ontario President Mark Baxter calling it "a step in the right direction" and British Columbia's Attorney General Niki Sharma urging Parliament to pass it quickly.

But lawyers and criminologists say it may not make people safer and could hurt poor, Indigenous and Black Canadians, who are over-represented in pre-trial detention, often because they lack the resources or supports to come up with a bail plan.

According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous people comprised 30% of pre-trial detention admissions in 2016-17 while making up about 5% of the Canadian population. Reuters has found Black people in Canada's most populous province spend a longer time behind bars awaiting trial than white people charged with many of the same categories of crimes.

The bill "will lead to more people being detained and ... those detention orders will impact marginalized communities more than any other group of accused persons," said criminal lawyer Daniel Brown.

Under the current rules, about 70.5% of adults in Canada's provincial and territorial jails in 2021-22 were awaiting trial, according to monthly averages from Statistics Canada, up from about 41.5% in 2001-02 and about 22.5% in 1978-79.

People jailed awaiting trial may feel pressured to plead guilty to get out of jail sooner, Brown said. People may also lose housing, employment or custody of their children while behind bars.

"We don’t need to detain more people," Brown added. "We just need to hold those accountable when they fail to do their jobs as bail supervisors or when people fail to abide by their bail terms."

(This story has been refiled to say 'bail terms,' not 'jail terms,' in paragraph 16)

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Aurora Ellis)