B.C. attorney general hails federal bail bill restricting release of violent offenders as it goes to Senate

Niki Sharma pictured being sworn in as B.C. attorney general on Dec. 7, 2022. (Mike McArthur/CBC News - image credit)
Niki Sharma pictured being sworn in as B.C. attorney general on Dec. 7, 2022. (Mike McArthur/CBC News - image credit)

British Columbia's attorney general says the passing of a bill that places a "reverse onus" on offenders to be released on bail is "one step closer" to meaningful reform intended to increase community safety.

Bill C-48 passed its third reading in the House of Commons on Monday, the day parliamentarians returned for the fall session, and will now go for review to the Senate.

Provinces including B.C., as well as law enforcement and advocates have been pressuring Ottawa over bail reform for more than a year, following crimes where suspects or those charged had a history of violence but were out on bail.

"Today we moved one step closer to ensuring safer communities across Canada, including here in B.C.," said Attorney General Niki Sharma in a statement from her office.

Bill C-48 would amend the Criminal Code so that those charged with a serious violent offence involving a weapon — one with a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment — who were convicted of a similar offence within the last five years will face a reverse onus to get bail.

This means the accused has to show why they should be released instead of the prosecution having to prove that they should remain behind bars.

The law expands the use of reverse onus for firearm and intimate partner violence offences, and allows courts to take into consideration community safety and an accused's history of violence when making a bail decision.

Under the law, a person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty. Granting them bail means they can remain out of jail while their case moves through the justice system — a process that can take many months.

Under the Criminal Code, a person has the right to a bail hearing within 24 hours of their arrest if a judge or justice of the peace is available, or as soon as possible once someone become available.

If they are denied bail, they will remain in custody. The financial cost of keeping an accused person in jail is far greater than the cost of supervising them in the community while they await trial.

In changing bail reforms, federal regulators said they also had to balance keeping offenders in custody against previous legislative changes that tried to be sensitive to Indigenous or Black people, who are over-represented in the criminal justice system.

Not complete fix, critics say

But critics say Bill C-48 doesn't go far enough.

South Surrey MLA Elenore Sturko, B.C. United critic for mental health and addictions, said it doesn't deal with smaller violations such as petty crimes like theft or street disorder.

"These will not touch those bail hearings because they don't fit within the new categories," said Sturko, who is a former Mountie.

Sturko also said while it waits on federal bail reform Premier David Eby's B.C. government could have been doing more to address "complex and overlapping mental-health and addictions crises," which are often the root causes of crime.

Angela Marie MacDougall, director of Battered Women's Support Services, said bail reform shouldn't be the first step in addressing intimate partner violence.

"The vast majority of victims do not report to the police, they report to friends and family … to anti-violence organizations, and that's actually where the investment needs to be," she said.

Sharma said in her statement that she would continue to advocate for further changes, but did not define what those would be.

"The premier and I, along with the solicitor general and colleagues from across Canada, continue to push for federal action on bail reform," her statement said.

In the spring, the province said it would create hubs made up of police, dedicated prosecutors and probation officers to target repeat violent offenders across the province.

The 12 hubs are part of the Repeat Violent Offending Intervention Initiative, which the province says focuses on targeted enforcement and enhanced investigation and monitoring.