VICTORIA, B.C – The British Columbia Prosecution Service announced changes to policies that specifically target the overrepresentation of Indigenous persons in the BC criminal justice system.
Government commissions and reports, and judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada have, for decades, recognized that Indigenous persons experience discrimination and unacceptable overrepresentation at all levels of the criminal justice system.
According to British Columbia Prosecution Service Communications Counsel Dan McLaughlin, “Close to 30 per cent of the inmate population is comprised of Indigenous persons, whereas the general Canadian population they represent in the order of 4 per cent.”
The British Columbia Prosecution Service started to create a new approach to handling cases involving Indigenous persons in March 2017. In April of 2019, the BCPS announced its newly formed Indigenous Justice Framework with the first set of policy changes.
The new policy changes came into effect in January 2021. There are revisions to Charge Assessment Guidelines, Alternatives to Prosecution, Resolution Discussions, Sentencing, Vulnerable Victims and Witnesses, and the Youth Criminal Justice Act- Extrajudicial Measures.
McLaughlin says many different agencies have come together to give input on the framework.
“We’ve reviewed these policies with representatives of the BC First Nations justice council, with the Métis nation, with a number of Indigenous legal scholars, and with BC corrections. All have had input into the work that we’ve done, and all have been supportive of this work.”
Efforts to track and monitor the progress has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as concerns about the completeness and reliability of data. McLaughlin highlights this as one of the changes to the policy.
“Some of the changes we’ve instituted include provisions for monitoring, collecting, and tracking who it is that actually identifies as Indigenous persons when they come into the criminal justice system. The corrections system have robust data on these numbers, we don’t have the same ability to, at this stage, clearly identify Indigenous persons at all stages of the proceeding.”
In the past, there has not been a policy to deal with sentencing. McLaughlin says these policies help prosecutors exercise discretion as they deal with cases.
“It emphasizes the need for principled restraint in all sentencing matters. Particularly as they apply to Indigenous persons, custodial sentences of less than two years, should be seen as a last resort.”
Mclaughlin identified the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark judgment in Regina vs. Gladue, saying, “It emphasizes the importance of providing information to the courts about the historical and cultural backgrounds that an offender possesses.”
Alternatives to prosecution is a policy that was recently updated, which deals with people McLaughlin believes are eligible for being dealt with by means other than a criminal prosecution.
“Instead of bringing them into the criminal justice system, we are trying to keep as many Indigenous persons out of the system at an early stage. What we’ve done is we’ve required Crown Counsel to consider all reasonable alternatives to prosecution, and we’ve increased the number and types of offenses that can be considered for an alternative to prosecution.”
McLaughlin says they will review the policies going forward to ensure the BC Prosecution Service stays on its path.
“These are revisions, changes that we’re making in order to try and reduce the overrepresentation. That’s our ultimate goal here.”