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Les Leyne: Province to announce 'creative' approach to reining in repeat street criminals

B.C. mayors have expressed concern about pattern of "catch and release" for repeat offenders
David Eby, B.C.'s attorney general, speaks in Vancouver on July 28, 2021. Eby and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth are today expected to announce a “creative” new approach to keeping communities safe. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

As B.C. politicians grow preoccupied with violent street crime by repeat offenders, it’s worth checking a detailed public account of one prolific offender’s experience.

He ran amok at a Vancouver coffee shop, was arrested and held overnight because of his lengthy criminal record. He screamed his way through his first court appearance, but was eventually released on bail.

“If you think I’m going to follow these conditions, you’re crazy,” he told the judge.

It takes five pages to recount his processing through the system. There were four police reports handled by 10 different prosecutors, four judges and some justices of the peace. After nine court appearances over four months, he wound up in exactly the same circumstances as when he was knocking over tables – on a year’s probation, barred from certain premises and ordered to report to a probation officer and take treatment. No one expected those conditions to be met.

It’s a mundane, typical story made interesting only by the date.

It was 2003.

It was recounted as the introduction to a report by a street crime working group that had studied what to do about prolific offenders.

Attorney General David Eby and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth are today expected to announce a “creative” new approach to that same old problem. A brief scan of the other attempts to deal with potentially violent repeat offenders over the years doesn’t build a lot of optimism.

The street crime working group that recounted that story submitted its report to a B.C. Justice Review task force, created by the B.C. Law Society. In “Beyond the Revolving Door” (2005) it urged community courts, a triage approach to repeat offenders and wraparound services. It warned: “Failure to change our current approach will cause a continued decrease in the quality of life in Vancouver and a further erosion of confidence in the justice system.”

(The only update needed on that long-ago alarm is that Victoria and several other B.C. cities should be included now with Vancouver.)

The report gave birth to a “prolific offender pilot project” in Victoria and several other cities a few years later. It wrapped up in 2012. The integrated court project component got solid reviews from experienced Victoria officials and an academic evaluation determined it was successful.

The government launched a “Getting Serious About Crime Reduction” drive in 2014. It was built on managing offenders more effectively with better services. Prior to that there were specific projects to tackle the same problem. West Vancouver and Surrey reported good results with similar approaches.

And yet here we are, with opposition critics recounting daily horror stories of random stranger attacks, police reporting the attacks are increasing and mayors producing compelling statistical evidence that the system isn’t working.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran, co-chairs of the urban mayors’ caucus, will be alongside the ministers today, which suggests Eby is planning to act on their concerns. They wrote to him citing a Victoria offender who generated 248 police incidents and 55 charges in two years, and similar cases elsewhere. They warned Eby that police are forwarding fewer cases to prosecutors, they are taking longer to review, fewer cases are going to court and there are fewer guilty verdicts.

They applauded recent commitments to complex-care housing and addiction support. But they said not all prolific offenders need a health-care response.

“Rather, that their repeated and constant offending be deterred and denounced.”

They called for stricter bail conditions, increased investment in prosecution and more community courts, among other things.

Facing accusations in the legislature that he’s “soft on crime” and running a “catch and release” program, Eby has been citing federal law and Supreme Court of Canada decisions that mandate less detention of offenders. He has also insisted that overall property crime rates are down, and that the pandemic – which depopulated downtown areas — has heightened public anxiety about violent attacks.

But he acknowledged this week that, when offenders are processed through the system dozens of times to no effect, “we need a solution that goes beyond the current system.”

He is expected to try one out today. There’s one reason for optimism. A relatively small number of offenders are responsible for the huge number of offences. The scope of the problem is manageable – once an approach that works is devised.

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