About transforming the criminal justice system

The Government of Canada is undertaking a broad examination of Canada’s criminal justice system to ensure that it is just, compassionate and fair, and promotes a safe, peaceful and prosperous Canadian society.

Transforming the criminal justice system involves thinking differently about how the criminal justice system works and how it relates to other social support systems in our society such as housing, health care, education, employment, training and child protection. As part of this process, the government is identifying changes that can be made to respond to known problems. Over the longer term it will identify further reforms that can make the system more just, compassionate, and fair.

Transforming the criminal justice system is a principle-based approach that works for Canadians and will address a number of important issues, notably:

  • ensuring consistency with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
  • reducing the over-representation of vulnerable populations
  • assessing the impacts of criminal sentencing reforms made in recent years
  • improving efficiency, effectiveness and timeliness
  • increasing transparency, accountability and oversight within the federal correctional system
  • increasing the use and acceptance of restorative justice processes

Safety for Canadians

Canadians expect their criminal justice system to keep them safe while protecting individual rights and freedoms. Victims need more opportunities for meaningful engagement throughout the criminal justice system and to be treated with compassion and respect. Offenders need to be held to account and to be prepared, once they leave the criminal justice system, to successfully reintegrate into society.

Efforts to address gaps in services to Indigenous Peoples and those with mental illness throughout the criminal justice system are co-led with the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, as set out in his Mandate letter.

To increase safety for Canadians, the government:

  • has proposed changes to the Victim Surcharge provisions, a federal monetary penalty on offenders – the changes would reduce the administrative costs associated with trying to collect money from people who simply do not have the means to pay
  • is reviewing the impact of sentencing law changes that were made in recent years
  • is working closely with provinces and territories to find ways to strategically address delays in the criminal justice system
  • is committed to hearing from Canadians – experts, academics, practitioners and citizens – to ensure an evidence-based approach to transformation
  • is committed to evidence based reforms to the federal correctional system to increase the safety of our communities, including reforms to the Criminal Records Act and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act

Some of the evidence is already there and a number of pressures affecting the criminal justice system have already been identified. These include:

  • Trial delays: There are various causes of delays, including the complexity of the criminal law, inadequate access to legal representation for accused individuals, and the high volume of administration of justice cases currently in the system. These latter cases take up significant court time and resources but do not necessarily enhance public safety. In 2014/2015, these types of cases accounted for 23%Footnote 1 of all cases and cost taxpayers an estimated $807 million dollars. Footnote 2
  • The number of people in custody awaiting trial: There is an increased number of people being held in custody awaiting trial, bail or sentencing. Statistics show that for adults, people held in custody while they wait for their trials outnumber those who are in provincial/territorial custody as a result of a sentence.
  • Unequal impact on vulnerable populations: Indigenous people in Canada are far more likely than non-Indigenous people to be in jail or to serve a sentence in the community.  Indigenous adults comprise about 3% of the Canadian adult population, yet they account for 27% of adult admissions to provincial/territorial custody (serving a sentence of less than two years) and 22% in federal custody (serving a sentence of more than two years).Footnote 3 The number of Indigenous people in federal custody has increased by 17% in the last five years.Footnote 4 This over-representation is largely related to socio-economic factors rather than criminality in itself.  In addition, people with addictions, people with mental health issues and people living in poverty are over represented in the criminal justice system.

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Compassion for victims

As part of transforming the criminal justice system, the government is exploring how to meaningfully engage victims and respond to their needs, while protecting their safety at all stages of the criminal justice system process. The Government of Canada is working with provinces and territories to enhance supports for victims and survivors of crime and is promoting trauma-informed training for criminal justice system professionals. For instance, the Government is working in partnership with provincial and territorial Victim Services and community-based organizations to provide assistance, information, and culturally-responsive and trauma-informed victim services to families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada.

The Government will also explore more effective ways of holding offenders to account, and to support their rehabilitation. Restorative Justice is one approach that can ensure accountability of offenders, give voice to the needs of victims, and strengthen our ability to restore communities. Restorative justice recognizes where people come from and why their stories matter.  Restorative approaches create a place for victims, offenders, and communities to collaboratively create better endings to their stories.

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Needs of vulnerable populations

Indigenous people, persons with mental illness and addictions, and people marginalized due to race, ethnicity, and other socio-economic characteristics are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. In transforming the criminal justice system, the government will, in the short term, look at how to improve treatment for offenders with mental illness or addictions issues and how to reduce the use of segregation in prisons. The government is also working over the long term to address gaps in services to these vulnerable groups that exist throughout the criminal justice system and to improve accessibility, both for victims and offenders.

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Integrated approach

Systemic issues in other social and economic systems related to the criminal justice system, such as housing, education, employment opportunities and health care, will be examined to determine how they could be contributing to the root causes of criminality. The Government of Canada is working together with provinces and territories to explore any over-reliance on the criminal justice system to provide solutions to behaviour that is generated or influenced by problems in other socio-economic systems, and whether these issues could be addressed more effectively elsewhere.  Transformation of the criminal justice system is about looking at human problems in a more holistic way.

Transformation towards a modern, smarter system that addresses these key issues and provides justice must include a look at the root causes.  To help us to focus on the problems that make today’s justice system less efficient, less effective and less fair we need a clear and accurate picture of the current system.

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