Why we are transforming the criminal justice system

A strong foundation

Canada’s justice system is considered among the best in the world. Rates of crime and severity of crime have been declining, and Canadians generally feel safe:

  • Crime rates are as low as in the early 1970sFootnote 1
  • The Crime Severity Index has declined 31% in the last decadeFootnote 2
  • 9 in 10 Canadians are satisfied with their personal safety from crimeFootnote 3
  • 8 in 10 Canadians feel safe in their neighborhoods at nightFootnote 4
  • 76% of Canadians have confidence in the policeFootnote 5

Challenges still remain

Despite its many strengths, there are ways Canada’s justice system needs to change to ensure long-term safety and justice for all Canadians. The system has become inefficient and at times crippled by delays. Judges have less discretion than ever to ensure the punishment fits the crime for the individual before them. Victims often feel isolated, re-victimized, and voiceless. Sexual assault reporting rates are unacceptably low, suggesting a lack of faith in the system. Indigenous people, particularly females, are seriously overrepresented in our prisons. Police stations and jails often serve as inappropriate substitutes for treatment and rehabilitation for those suffering from mental illness and addiction.

System delays and inefficiencies

Delays within the justice system are harmful to all involved – victims, communities, and the accused. Due to the time it takes to get to trial, there are currently more people in provincial jails awaiting trial or sentencing than actually serving sentences. Victims and their families often have to wait years to see justice done, and since the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in Jordan, some have seen charges dismissed before trial, due to constitutionally unacceptable delays. Delays and inefficiencies make it harder for the criminal justice system to focus on catching, convicting and sentencing serious offenders.

There are many reasons for the current situation, and no one solution. One reason is the large number of “administration-of-justice” charges in the system. These include offences like failing to appear in court or breaching probation and bail conditions, often for actions that are not in themselves crimes such as a no-alcohol condition. Cases like these use up a tremendous amount of time and resources but do not always provide greater protection to the public.

It has also been suggested that a culture of complacency exists in our courts that must be reversed. The system has grown accustomed to and comfortable with delay.

Low rate of sexual assault reporting

Sexual assault incidents are seriously under-reported in Canada. Only 5% of sexual assaults perpetrated against individuals 15 years and older were reported to police in 2014, compared to 31% of all crimes.Footnote 6 Victims and survivors of sexual assault often face significant barriers in reporting crimes to police and testifying in court. The charging, prosecution and conviction rates in cases of sexual assault are lower than for other types of violent crime. These statistics suggest victims of sexual assault lack faith in the criminal justice system and feel their voices aren’t being heard.

We need to better understand the needs of sexual assault victims, including gaining more insight into the impacts trauma can have. It may be that certain victims need to be empowered with options other than the adversarial system to seek justice, such as restorative justice.

Overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Canada’s justice system is the overrepresentation of vulnerable populations as both offenders and victims.

In Canada, Indigenous people are the most at risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system. The degree of overrepresentation cannot be understated.

  • While Indigenous adults make up about 4.1% of the Canadian population, in 2016-17 they represented 30% of admissions to provincial/territorial custody and 27% of admissions to federal custody. Footnote 7
  • 50% of youth admitted to custody in 2016/2017 were Indigenous, despite making up only 8% of Canada’s youth populationFootnote 8

Indigenous over-representation in custody described below

Text version: Indigenous overrepresentation in custody
Indigenous overrepresentation in custody Indigenous people
Indigenous adults in the general population 4.1%
Indigenous adults in federal custody admissions 27%
Indigenous youth in the general population 8%
Indigenous youth in custody admissions 50%

Other vulnerable populations

People 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.

  • Up to 80% of federal offenders have past or current substance abuse issues. Footnote 9
  • According to some studies, 2/3 of crimes are committed while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Footnote 10
  • Estimates of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder prevalence among correctional populations range from 10% to 23%, 10 times higher than in the general population. Footnote 11
  • Those suffering from mental illness are also greatly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, suggesting a need for more tailored and nuanced reforms.