New data shows BC bail policy fails to keep violent repeat offenders in jail

Written By Rob Shaw

When the NDP government ordered Crown prosecutors to crack down on the so-called revolving door justice system of repeat violent offenders in late 2022, then Attorney General Murray Rankin said he was “convinced that this will make a difference.” But the directive from the province failed to change much of anything, according to new numbers from the BC Prosecution Service this week. 

The government intervention — which consisted of a revised bail policy in which prosecutors were supposed to oppose bail unless they were sure a person’s release would not harm public safety  — had no material effect on the number of prolific offenders being detailed behind bars before trial.

Crown prosecutors only sought detention in 44 per cent of 295 bail hearings for the most violent repeat offenders from November 2022 to December 2023, the statistics show. Of that, judges agreed in fewer than half the cases. 

Crown sought detention in 44 per cent of bail hearings for the most violent repeat offenders.

The end result was that repeat violent offenders, who had both breached conditions from previous charges and also had subsequent outstanding warrants, walked back into the community on bail in more than four out of every five cases.

All that despite immense pressure on the NDP government to act on the issue, daily questions in the legislature, national debate on the subject, several horror story cases in the media, and the new provincial directive.

Province has limited influence over bail decisions

The figures put into sharp contrast the limits of the province to influence what is ultimately bail decisions made by an independent judiciary, following federal law. 

And that, in turn, highlights how little room to move Premier David Eby’s government has on this particular public safety issue during an election year — meaning its hopes rest entirely on changes Ottawa made to bail provisions earlier this year.

“It kind of makes out what we’ve been saying all along, which was that the law needed to change,” said current Attorney General Niki Sharma. 

The numbers fail to tell the whole story, said BC United critic Elenore Sturko. 

“I think most people’s primary concern is where we have violent offenders who have shown that they will not abide by the court’s wishes, and they will not show up for court, why was detention only sought half the time?” she said.

“Why was detention only sought half the time?”

Elenore Sturko

Missing is any explanation about why Crown prosecutors don’t ask more often for detention in the worst cases, as per the government directive. The independent prosecution service would also not answer how many of the bail hearings involved repeat offenders, and why in those cases the Crown failed to ask for detention.

Government needs to share why bail policy is failing

The government needs to demand a detailed synopsis that explains in detail what is failing in the most serious cases, said Sturko, a retired RCMP officer.

“Without that kind of synopsizing for the public, it’s really hard for us to understand what’s happening here,” she said.

“Is this a case where the Crown’s arguments are insufficient? Is it a case of police potentially having insufficient evidence provided to Crown? Or is it a case where judges are not interpreting recent bail changes the way that it would have been hoped.

“Really, you know, just seeing percentages, it looks bad. It looks really bad. And doesn’t look like it’s addressing that these bail reforms have actually had any impact.”

Crown only asked for people to be held behind bars in 28 per cent of 2,355 cases involving violence over the last year, the statistics show. Judges only ordered detention in 12 per cent of the cases involving violent offences.

Judges only ordered detention in 12 per cent of the cases involving violent offences.

Overall, in all of the 4,755 bail hearings during the course of a year, only 10 per cent of people were detained without bail.

Attorney General hangs hope on recent federal bail reforms

Under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, people have the right to be granted bail in most cases, and must not be detained unreasonably. 

The federal government passed bail reform changes in December, which expanded “reverse-onus” provisions for more weapons offences and intimate partner violence charges, meaning prosecutors don’t have to prove why someone should be held in custody, it is up to the accused to prove why they are safe for release.

The changes alter the rules judges must apply in making bail decisions.

“The bail reform was necessary in order to make sure repeat violent offenders were focused on,” said Sharma. “That only came into force in January, so we don’t yet have the data under that new regime. But I’m glad that we clearly advocated for that.”

Sharma said she is “really hopeful” that it will make a difference.

Sturko said public trust is at stake. 

Public safety, crime and street disorder is one of the most important issues to voters heading into this year’s provincial election, according to a recent Angus Reid survey, but 68 per cent of people asked think the NDP government is doing a poor job responding to the issue. 

“We’ve been doing everything in our control,” said Sharma.

Even so, the new figures show just how little control the province actually has, on an issue that is top-of-mind for voters this year.