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Playing the blame game | John L. Hill

Tuesday, May 18, 2021 @ 11:22 AM | By John L. Hill


John L. Hill %>
John L. Hill
It comes as no surprise that Canadians are weary of COVID-19 and the restrictions placed upon us in an attempt to reduce community spread. An unfortunate social byproduct is to play the “blame game.” The object is to seek out and name a level of government, a nationality or governmental institution that is causing us to change our traditional manners of behaviour. Sometimes the blame game eases temporary frustration but over time it could damage the very institutions upon which we rely for good governance.

It happened late last Thursday when Cobourg, Ont., Police Chief Paul VandeGraaf tweeted a statement that he was “dumbfounded” by a decision of a local JP not to hold a suspected drug trafficker in custody until trial. A press release detailing the arrest noted that the Cobourg Police Service commenced a drug investigation and arrested a 22-year-old Brampton resident. The man was charged with drug possession, obstructing police by misidentifying himself, possessing proceeds of crime and failure to comply with a previously imposed recognizance. It turned out that the man arrested had been charged in 2018 for robbery and was not yet tried. He was to remain at home unless in the presence of a surety.

When the accused person went before a justice of the peace on May 14, the JP released the individual with conditions similar to those of his earlier release. Chief VandeGraaf issued a statement that read in part as follows:

“Here we have an individual who after allegedly committing violent offences, is released. He comes to our community to participate in the drug trade. Cobourg Police arrest him, and he willingly obstructs by offering a false name. How can it be that today, once again, he is released? In following the Ministry’s own ladder approach, [the offender’s] next step was detention. How did we go backwards? The system is not working. The release of this individual shows very clearly that we are not on the same page when it comes to protecting our community. We are chasing our tails, and the good work of the women and men of my service goes to waste.”

The chair of Cobourg’s Police Services Board went further, writing “It is disheartening for our members and our community. The ones who live through it every day, seeing that the police are actively working to make a difference and the courts do not support them in their efforts.”

With such direct criticism of the courts, Cobourg residents were naturally outraged. Some demanded that the JP who issued the release order be named or even fired.

When the police chief was asked if he had made formal complaint to the Justices of the Peace Review Council, the chief did not reply. It is likely that the chief knew well that until COVID-19 gets under control, drastic steps are being taken to reduce the number of accused persons and offenders kept in jails where outbreaks of the disease and the potential for community spread pose serious risks not only to the inmates but also to custodial staff and the surrounding communities.

Both the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of the Attorney General have issued directives urging the courts to go easy on jailing offenders in an attempt to keep only the most dangerous locked up. It’s a policy that seems necessary in times of pandemic.

In this light, the release of a person involved in non-violent crime, even if accused of violence in the past, is a reasonable decision for the JP to order. What is unreasonable is for our community leaders to issue statements detracting from the legitimacy of our judicial institutions, especially when a member of the judiciary is unable to respond to such an attack.

Our democratic institutions work only when there is public faith in their efficacy. Playing the blame game detracts from the important work of our judicial system in keeping us safe and secure.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. Contact him at johnlornehill@hotmail.com.

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