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Rob Shaw: Bail reform aims to address public safety concerns

For the premiers, it responds to criticism about public disorder
B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma and Premier David Eby brought concerns about lax bail conditions to Ottawa.

Premier David Eby’s administration racked up a much-needed win on the public safety crisis Tuesday, as Ottawa introduced the very bail reforms he’s been demanding for months.

Eby and his ministers took a victory lap on social media, blasting out the news far and wide with an emphasis on the province’s “leadership role” in pushing the federal government to make the changes.

A full legal analysis has yet to be completed, but it would appear British Columbia got most, if not all, of what it wanted out of federal Justice Minister David Lametti in the new legislation.

“This bill responds directly to concerns raised by the premiers, as well as police chiefs and victims’ advocates,” said Lametti.

Ottawa’s legislation proposes to put what’s called a “reverse onus” on repeat violent offenders, meaning the default position is they’d have to remain behind bars while awaiting trial, unless they can convince a judge they should be released.

It also adds knives and bear spray to the list of weapons that trigger this provision, and it allows courts to consider crimes a person is currently charged with, not just the ones in which they’ve been convicted.

In addition, the legislation requires judges to consider a person’s record of violent convictions, and the potential impact on community safety, when making a bail decision — going so far as to require judges to issue an on-the-record statement that the security of a community has been considered when granting someone bail.

“You are innocent until proven guilty, and this is a critically important part of our legal system,” said Lametti.

“But what we’re doing for certain violent offences is changing the default position and making sure that it is only in cases where there isn’t a threat to security.”

Attorney General Niki Sharma said she was “really pleased with the amendments” because they provide “better tools” that provinces like B.C. have been calling for.

“I’m advised by staff that it addresses many of the concerns that have been raised by British Columbia and by other premiers across Canada,” added Eby.

The BC NDP government has been under increasing fire for public disorder on city streets, including rising homelessness, drug use, vandalism, random attacks and violence. The government has said prosecutors are hampered by federal bail laws, and that judges grant their requests to hold violent prolific offenders in custody in only around half the cases in which they are asked.

The new federal legislation seeks to mitigate the unintended consequences of previous bail reform in 2019, which was supposed to reduce the number of Indigenous people in custody awaiting trial, as well as those with mental health and addictions problems. It worked, but also in the process allowed loopholes for violent repeat offenders to get back on the street and commit more crimes.

Eby met with the Prime Minister earlier this year to urge action, and rallied other premiers to ratchet up the pressure to force the federal Liberal government to act. He’s now in a position to tout that leadership, having won the reforms he sought.

Still, the issue remains a sensitive one for the B.C. and federal governments. In both cases, they face opposition parties saying it is too little too late, and seeking to turn public safety into an election wedge issue.

B.C.’s Opposition BC United party has not commented yet on the federal reforms, but is trying to paint the Eby government as allowing street disorder to rise due to decriminalization policies and a lack of mental health and drug addiction treatment spaces.

Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre called Tuesday for “jail not bail” for violent repeat offenders.

“This bill does not… raise the bar,” he said. “It simply puts in a bunch of lower bars… underneath the bar that is already there.”

The federal political sparring also threatens to upend Eby’s hard-fought reforms. Lametti on Tuesday urged opposition parties to support the bill to allow for its passage in the 22 days remaining in the spring session, in a bid to goad the Conservatives into voting against public safety legislation. And then it has to clear the Senate.

Eby pleaded for the bill’s passage.

“This can't be a bill that is partisan in nature, it needs to be all hands on deck to ensure that it's responsive to the concerns that we're seeing across the country, that premiers across the country have spoken out about,” he said.

“I don't think it will be acceptable to anybody from any political party, that this bill becomes a political football or gets stuck in the Senate. We just need to see this action and premiers of every political stripe across the country have come together to insist on this reform.”

The federal politicking is largely out of Eby’s control. But in the meantime, he can take a victory lap on pushing Ottawa to reform the criminal code. It won’t solve all the problems, but for a premier facing several ongoing crises at once, it was a welcome bit of good news.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence,