Crime is not being addressed adequately due to a variety of challenges the judicial system is facing. That was the general feeling of the RM of Portage la Prairie council this past week when a local Crown Attorney was invited to their chambers to discuss this issue.
During the meeting, Portage Office Supervising Senior Crown Attorney Larry Hodgson commented on incidents where suspects were caught in the act of break and entering, and released the next day.
Hodgson came to discuss ways in which the council can help what it described as the failing judicial system with its current form of hold-and-release policies for arrested suspects.
Reeve Kam Blight and the councillors posed some strong questions to the Crown Attorney which resulted in a very informative discussion.
"The RM of Portage la Prairie Council is very concerned with the crime that's been taking place in our municipality and our region, and we're trying to find ways to influence, change and make a difference," says Blight. "In order for us to do that, we need to talk to all the individuals that are involved at the different levels and try to better understand their perspectives, the rules, guidelines, and the system itself. So, we invited Crown Attorney Larry Hodgson to come in."
Blight notes the council sought direction from Hodgson about what they could do to help deter crime in the area.
"We're very concerned with the revolving door within the criminal justice system," continues Blight. "There are a lot of repeat offenders out there. It's creating a lot of frustration, fear, and anger in our municipality, as well as in our region, and across the province. So, we're trying to find ways to influence change. We only have so many powers as a municipal government, and we do not set the laws or the rules, but we can certainly try and send messages to those that do. We're trying to find out what are the holdbacks."
He says they asked the Crown Attorney where he's working, what are the challenges there, and what needs to be improved.
"We found out that the institutions are full," adds Blight. "So, that either tells us that, maybe, there are more institutions that are needed. There is increasing crime. We have closed down some facilities, so possibly, investment needs to be made there. The resources that are being provided to these individuals are talked about all the time, such as rehabilitative or restorative justice. Those resources aren't readily available to these individuals, so they're talking like they're going to be doing this, but are not actually acting on it."
Blight says the council wants to know how it can help influence change to make sure that the help is there for those individuals.
"We've also heard about certain facilities that do provide some help with addictions, that have a massive waiting list for individuals that want to get in there," notes Blight. "So, there are individuals that want help, but we can't help them because the spaces are full. That's a big sign for us. More investment or something needs to take place there to help get those people the help that they need. So, we're trying to find different ways that we can lobby the government or whoever it may be to help influence change to make this a safer community for all of us to live in and invest in."
He explains they definitely took away some things from their discussion with Hodgson and they're going to continue to pursue them and work with the Crown Attorney's office.
Blight and other councillors shared their thoughts as to how the current system is simply not working.
"He totally understands our frustration," says Blight. "They're working within the parameters that they have to work within. The judges still have a responsibility as well, and we also know that the provincial and federal government maintain that everyone has a right to bail or right to be released, which is creating a lot of challenges. But, what they're doing, is putting the onus back on the private citizen -- the law-abiding citizens -- who are, in a lot of cases, the victim, and it's very frustrating. We know that these criminals appear to have more rights than the law-abiding citizens, and we need to influence change in that regard."
He notes they asked Hodgson about the possibility of holding parents of offenders who are minors accountable for their children
"A lot of juvenile crime is taking place and there's no need for a child to be out at midnight walking the streets on a Tuesday night when they're 10 to 12-years-old getting into mischief," continues Blight. "These parents need to take more responsibility for their children, and so, we were asking questions of ways to be able to do that -- what can we do? We're going to try and find ways to continue to lobby the different levels of government to make a positive change to help reduce the crime to make sure that we do have that nice, safe living environment and safe communities for our people to live in and invest in."
Hodgson noted they need help from business owners to further their efforts to make necessary changes.
"I think that just speaks to the frustration of the residents and business owners in our community," adds Blight. "They speak out. They give all that information. They tell. They help. They share everything they possibly can. And what happens? Those individuals get released, basically, the very next day. And they're out there recommitting those crimes. These individuals were required to pay restitution or pay dollars back. I would suspect that many of the victims haven't received a single cent back in payments from these individuals. So, let's be honest. I think individuals are frustrated and they just know that they feel that if they provide this information, it's not going to make a difference. So, that's what the provincial government and the federal governments need to know, as well as the justice system. It's failing our people. And they've lost faith in the justice system."
He notes this faith must be restored in some way.
"We want to be a part of the solution and we only have so much that we can do as municipal individuals," says Blight. "We want to use the context and lend our voice for them and speak on their behalf wherever we can, to try and influence change. Something has to change because it's going to come down to the fact where the property owners are going to start taking matters into their own hands. That's the last thing that anybody wants to see."
Blight explains the background of offending individuals has been said to have been considered by the judicial system to influence how much time a person is spent in incarceration.
"There's always the talk that it's because of addictions or the conditions that they've grown up in, or situations such as that," continues Blight. "I think it's important to note that these individuals that are committing these crimes are making the conscious choice to do just that. They know that what they're doing is against the law, and it's illegal regardless of where they're living now, or their upbringing. There are a lot of individuals that are living in those circumstances that have made the choice not to commit these crimes. So, you know, I think that we have to make sure that we're putting some penalties and consequences in place, so that these individuals will think twice about committing these acts and crimes. Right now, there are none. So, it's more of a game than anything for them, I think, and we need to lobby for change in that sense."
He adds council is passionate about this overall problem. Blight notes they feel that the system is failing right now and changes must be made. Having a discussion with the Crown Attorney's Office was very beneficial to the RM of Portage.
Hodgson says he informed the RM council that the way in which they can help the problem come to a resolution is by continuing to tell elected officials about their concerns.
"I know one of the things that we look at is how can we deter people from even getting started in crime, and often that involves other resources," explains Hodgson. "We know that substance abuse, whether it's alcohol or drugs, is a huge problem. Mental health issues are a huge problem, and there are limited resources out there for helping people with those issues before they get involved in crime. We find lots of people that, once they're into the system, those are the two major factors that people are involved with -- mental health issues and substance abuse. Often it's like, which one came first, and there is, frankly, a lack of resources in that area to help some people."
Hodgson says institutions are fairly full.
"There's always a little bit of room, it seems, but the institutions are full," notes Hodgson. "For a while there, especially with COVID, there was not a whole lot of programming going on, even within the institution. The Winding River program is a very good program. I've heard a lot of positive things both from offenders, from defence counsel, and from people within my own department. When I'm sentencing an offender, and he's talking about being in that program, enjoying the program, and learning a lot, that gives me hope."
He adds his entire office and department are aware of the crime going on in the RM outside of cities.
"I know the Minister is pushing for a change in the Criminal Code to make it an aggravating factor if offences are taken out there," explains Hodgson. "We are already suggesting it's an aggravating factor when we do sentencing and when we are sentencing somebody. So, I'm not saying 'Don't push that way', but knowing that that's what the minister saying, whether or not it's in legislation, we're pushing that way, in any event. We are well aware of what's going on out in the RM. It's difficult. We get frustrated and I can only imagine the community gets even more frustrated than us."
Hodgson shares his perspective on an increase in punishment.
"I just sentenced somebody here recently. It was a theft at a Canadian Tire. We always put words on the record that retail theft is something that this community is having a serious problem with. We just ask the judge to take that into consideration when they're sentencing."
He notes his office asks for a higher sentence, adding they're trying.