Final report on the review of Canada’s criminal justice system

What we heard: The challenges

By its very nature, the consultation process attracted an array of views. The broad nature of the review nonetheless allowed ample opportunity for consensus to emerge on some key issues. While emphasizing the need for the criminal justice system to hold offenders accountable and to promote public safety, participants pointed to a number of systemic problems:

  • The system is archaic and has not kept pace with social change. Some of its values and principles are outdated, including relying too heavily on punishment and incarceration and not enough on rehabilitation and community-based sentencing.
  • There is inadequate use of restorative justice and other alternatives as meaningful ways of holding individuals to account.
  • The system disproportionately targets individuals from specific demographic groups – especially Black and Indigenous Canadians – and is particularly ill-suited to deal with the realities of vulnerable and marginalized groups, including people with mental illness or substance use issues.
  • The system is often left to address problems that are fundamentally social in nature, including poverty and homelessness. In many cases, vulnerable individuals enter the system largely because of their circumstances and lack of options. These individuals often end up returning to the system.
  • People face issues that often involve other social systems to which the criminal justice system is not linked. Information is not adequately shared or integrated across the different systems.
  • Current laws, particularly mandatory minimum penalties, unnecessarily limit judicial discretion.
  • The system often results in long delays before a case is brought to trial, which has negative impacts on the accused and on the victim of the crime, both of whom are forced to wait for justice. Case completion time in adult courts continues to rise, even as the overall number of cases declines.
  • The system is too occupied with relatively minor administration of justice offences, such as failure to appear in court. The number of these offences has grown markedly in past years and they contribute to significant court delays.
  • There is a serious lack of data and information on what is going on in the criminal justice system, including who is in it and why, as well as what approaches are working well.

There continue to be barriers to justice for victims and survivors of crime, who often feel isolated, frustrated and voiceless. Foremost among these barriers are the following:

  • Underreporting. Victims (especially victims of sexual assault) often choose not to report crimes to the police for fear of repercussions against them, or apprehension that their cases will not be taken seriously. They lack faith in the integrity of the criminal justice system.
  • Trial delays. Often, cases go to trial only after a long delay. When a case is eventually heard, the delay has already taken a serious toll on the victim. Due to the time it takes some cases to go to trial, there are currently more people in provincial jails awaiting trial or sentencing than actually serving sentences.
  • Treatment within the system. Despite some advances, victims continue to report that the criminal justice system does not always treat them with compassion and respect. They often feel excluded from – and sometimes further traumatized by – the system.
  • Lack of timely, affordable supports. Victims are particularly concerned about the lack of supports available to them during the criminal justice process and after their case concludes.

In summary, the review found widespread recognition that our criminal justice system needs comprehensive reform, including greater flexibility to respond to criminality – and those affected by it – in new and different ways.

In particular, consultation participants were strongly of the view that the criminal justice system should not continue to be used to solve social problems. The issues that lead some people to commit crime would be better addressed through a collaborative, multi-sectoral approach. The most important transformation will ultimately lie in providing the appropriate supports to individuals who don’t belong in the criminal justice system in the first place. Most individuals in the criminal justice system as we know it today need other social supports.

At the same time, we heard very clearly that public safety must maintain a place of paramount importance in the system and offenders must be held accountable for their actions.

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