Premier David Eby has announced changes he said are meant to help make British Columbia’s communities safer, including a new policy on bail that is intended to keep repeat offenders behind bars.
Eby said the plan has two key tracks: One is meant to strengthen enforcement and the other to strengthen intervention services to “help people break the cycle of life in and out of jail” with programs such as a new model of addictions care at St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver.
“Being compassionate, concerned and taking action on mental-health and addiction issues does not mean that we have to accept repeated criminal behaviour or violence,” said Eby, who was sworn in as premier on Nov. 18. “Everyone deserves to feel safe in their community.”
The new bail policy directive — a highly legalistic document that outlines the prosecution service’s ability, but not a requirement, to oppose bail — goes into effect on Nov. 22.
Public safety has been a hot topic in B.C., particularly around repeat offenders, with some cases of offenders with lengthy records being charged with crimes such as assault on random people. The issue prompted the B.C. Urban Mayors’ Caucus — of which former Kamloops mayor Ken Christian was a signatory — to urge the provincial government to act.
According to a B.C. government-commissioned prolific offender report by Doug LePard and Amanda Butler, stranger attacks in Vancouver in 2020-2021 increased by 35 per cent compared to 2019, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic.
B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said while some of the actions announced by Eby are those asked for by his party, they could have been done at any point in the past five-and-a-half-year, while Eby was attorney general.
Falcon said 900 people had been violently attacked by strangers in Vancouver alone since the B.C. Liberals called on Eby to issue a directive to Crown prosecutors to end what he called the “catch and release” policy for repeat criminal offenders.
“It’s clear that what was announced this morning had been prepared for months and was withheld for David Eby to opportunistically take the credit,” Falcon said. “For David Eby to play politics with public safety is unconscionable.”
An announcement does not equate to action or results, Falcon added.
Part of the cause underlying the release of repeat offenders is Bill C-75, a federal law passed in 2019 that updated the bail provisions in Canada’s Criminal Code under a “principal of restraint” and a Supreme Court of Canada decision that also ruled that bail conditions should not be onerous. Both have made it more difficult to keep violent offenders in jail while waiting for trial, according to justice experts.
The plan announced by Eby includes the creation of repeat violent offender co-ordinated response teams, which were first announced two months ago, to include police and 21 dedicated prosecutors, 21 probation officers, 21 support personnel and nine correction supervisors.
The teams are meant to monitor high-risk repeat offender cases, conduct investigations, provide information to keep repeat violent offenders in custody before trial, use that information in sentencing and promote rehabilitation through referral to services.
No new spending was announced for the repeat offender response teams, but some other elements of Eby’s plan had funding totalling $10.5 million.
Eby said the core of the safety plan is co-ordination of those in the justice system, non-profit organizations, cities, the provincial government and Indigenous Peoples working together.
He said the provincial government, and the Public Safety Ministry, will hold ultimate responsibility for the safety plan. He said there will be success, or an indication the province is headed in the right direction, when British Columbians feel safer in their communities and when someone in distress gets the supports they need.
The safety plan includes a $3-million fund for integrated mobile community crisis response by police and health-care workers in communities throughout B.C., known as Car teams, which already exist in communities such as Vancouver and the North Shore.
Another $3 million a year will expand virtual bail hearings, so alleged offenders will not be transported to regional hubs such as Prince George, Kamloops and Nanaimo and get stuck there, homeless.
Another $4.5 million is being provided over three years to the Brain Injury Alliance to support delivery of services in 13 communities throughout B.C.
The province will also be expanding peer-assisted care teams, which include mental-health professionals, like social workers and psychiatric nurses, who provide culturally safe support for people in crisis.
An additional 10 Indigenous justice centres will be created to provide culturally appropriate support for Indigenous peoples involved in the justice system.
Eby also announced the province will introduce a law in the spring allowing unexplained-wealth orders. The orders, in use in the United Kingdom, allow a court to compel a target to reveal the sources of their unexplained wealth.
Their aim is to help combat money laundering and allow authorities to go after the houses, cars and luxury goods of high-level organized criminals.