The province is holding off on a major reform to the bail system prompted by the shooting death of a St. Albert RCMP officer in part because it could cost millions of dollars.
Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley released the Alberta Bail Review report Friday. The report, written by former federal Crown prosecutor Nancy Irving, suggests 31 reforms to Alberta’s bail system.
The review was prompted by death of St. Albert RCMP Const. David Wynn and wounding of Aux. Const. Derek Bond who were shot by Shawn Maxwell Rehn in January 2015. Rehn was out on bail at the time.
A provincial review of the case called for a review into how Alberta conducted bail hearings.
The Criminal Code requires that anyone arrested be brought before a judge or justice of the peace within 24 hours for a bail hearing, during which the court decides whether to let the person go or keep them in jail until trial.
About 60,000 arrests led to bail hearings in 2015.
Alberta is unique in Canada in that it has police officers rather than trained lawyers act as the prosecutors at bail hearings in almost all cases, Irving noted.
She consulted hundreds of lawyers, police, and legal advocates, and most agreed that this should not be the case.
Police aren’t trained to go up against defence lawyers, often don’t fully understand the law, and are often in a conflict of interest (as they may be prosecuting the same person they arrested). Police in bail hearings also aren’t available to patrol streets, taking away from police resources – the Edmonton Police Service said these hearings cost them $620,000 a year, or the equivalent of four full-time positions.
She also noted that there’s no legal basis in the Criminal Code for a police officer to speak for the Crown in a bail hearing.
“It is time for the current practice to end,” Irving wrote.
Irving’s top recommendation was that prosecutors replace police officers at all bail hearings, and that the federal and provincial governments chip in the cash to make that happen.
She also recommended that the province end the practice of “tele-bail,” where bail hearings are done over the phone, and instead hold bail trials face-to-face. Phone hearings make it very tough for an accused to present their case and for a judge to make an accurate ruling, she found.
Irving also called for more training of police and prosecutors when it comes to bail (and when they can revoke it) as well as improvements in the way law officials distributed and accessed information on accused parties in bail hearings. Prosecutors should also always consider calling for bail to be revoked if an accused commits a crime while out on bail (as happened in the Rehn case).
The province is holding off on 17 of Irving’s recommendations pending further consultation, including the ban on tele-bail and the replacement of police with prosecutors.
“The bail system needs to be looked at thoughtfully and thoroughly before significant change is made,” Ganley said in a press conference.
She said replacing police with prosecutors would make it very tough to maintain Alberta’s current 24/7 bail court system (where people can have bail hearings at any time instead of just during work hours).
“The costing is looking to be in the millions,” she said, with $4 to $6 million being the initial estimate to hire the needed staff.
There were also significant costs associated with ditching tele-bail, such as the cost of video-conference equipment and the time lost hauling people long distances to court.
Ganley said she believed the report’s recommendations on ensuring Crown representatives have the right information at bail hearings should help prevent another case like the Wynn shooting from occurring.
Alberta’s current bail process helps keep people who deserve bail from clogging up the legal system, said St. Albert defence lawyer Rory Ziv, who had yet to read Irving’s report. He agreed that police needed better training on bail powers, but said swapping police for prosecutors wouldn’t make much difference as they would both be using the same evidence (although it could free the officer to do other police work).
“Tele-bail is one of the most efficient procedures we have in the criminal justice system,” Ziv said, and he supported keeping it. Ban it, and all you’ll do is clog up the courts.
While Wynn’s death was tragic, Ziv argued that Alberta’s bail system worked well in many cases, and that a different judge might have made a different decision in Rehn’s case.
“We shouldn’t change an entire system based on one incident.”
The report can be found at justice.alberta.ca under “Improving Bail in Alberta.”