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

Key messages from Canadians

The input received from participants and stakeholders who engaged over the course of this review identified four areas around which any future reform of the criminal justice system might focus. While these are sometimes broad and far-reaching directions, they leave much room for future choices around design and implementation.

  1. Restorative justice principles could play a more prominent role. Review contributors felt the criminal justice system, at times, focuses too much on the offence rather than the offender. It aims to punish rather than rehabilitate the individual. Stakeholders and partners suggested that more emphasis could be placed on addressing an individual’s surroundings and circumstances, on rehabilitation and crime prevention and on repairing the harm done to victims of crime. Restorative justice sees crime as a violation of people and relationships, not just a violation against the state. It seeks to provide opportunities for more lasting resolutions to crime. It can increase access to justice and improve outcomes for victims and communities. It can help to reduce incarceration rates – both in general and among specific, marginalized demographic groups.

    Numerous examples of how restorative justice is well suited to deal with certain forms of criminality, while still holding offenders to account were identified over the course of the review. These examples demonstrated how restorative justice seeks to address the harms crime causes by promoting restoration, reparation and reintegration.

  2. More concrete and specific steps could be taken to reduce the overrepresentation in the system of vulnerable populations and specific demographic groups. It is well documented that Indigenous people in Canada are grossly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Black Canadians are also overrepresented, as are those who are vulnerable or marginalized in other ways, for example, those with mental illness and substance use disorders. Review participants frequently emphasized the importance of data collection and improvements to justice information systems in this area. Simply put, many felt that the true scale of the problem is not well understood. It is widely accepted that the solutions to this issue do not lie squarely within the criminal justice system.

  3. Further sentencing reform. Most participants believe that the best approach for determining fair and appropriate sentences for offenders involves giving judges at least some degree of discretion. Few believed that applying the same sentence to all offenders is fair and appropriate. Many supported the idea of a sentencing commission to help ensure that sentences are fair, consistent and reflective of our modern-day society.

    The consultation process made clear that most Canadians want judges to consider an offender’s characteristics (such as mental health, cognitive difficulties and addiction or poverty issues) before deciding on a sentence. Participants supported less severe sentences for low-level, non-violent crime and longer sentences for the most severe violent offences.

  4. Data and performance gaps could be improved. Review participants noted how longstanding data and information gaps seriously limit our ability to understand the criminal justice system and identify problems, assess performance and progress, and support evidence-based policy, programming, or legislative changes. At issue is not simply the lack of data pertaining to pathways through the criminal justice system, but rather the inability to track trajectories of individuals from one system to another and the inability to understand what circumstances bring individuals into contact with the system.

    Canada’s criminal justice system interacts with myriad other social systems such as health, income support, child welfare and housing in complex ways. We heard clearly that any reform should take into account and limit the potential for unintended and harmful consequences, for offenders, victims, their families and communities.

    This review has demonstrated the way we respond to criminality reflects our values and principles as a country. Evidence-based reforms hold the potential to promote a safer and more just society – and a more efficient and effective criminal justice system.