Sask.'s justice system 'treading water,' report says, ranks 9th among 13 provinces and territories

With the highest property crime and violence rates among all provinces, and a disproportionately high number of Indigenous people facing incarceration, Saskatchewan's criminal justice system is still near the bottom of the pack in Canada, according to a new report.

"I'd say you're basically in a situation where you're treading water," said Benjamin Perrin, co-author of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute report, noting Saskatchewan is facing an uphill battle.

"When your crime rates are that high, you're going to have to spend a lot of money just to deal with them, let alone being able to reduce them."

The institute released its second Criminal Justice System report card this past week. The report saw Saskatchewan maintain a ninth place ranking out of 13 provinces and territories, ahead only of British Columbia, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said there are a few factors behind Saskatchewan's low ranking, starting with its high rates of violence and property crime, exceeded only by the territories.

The province also has the highest rate of people failing to appear for court appearances, and high rates of people failing to comply with court orders.

Access to justice, police costs factored in

Fairness and access to justice are "very serious" concerns in the province, with relatively low access to Legal Aid for criminal cases and Indigenous people facing high incarceration rates relative to their population, he said.

"Indigenous people in Canada are really still treated in this country as second-class citizens. They have lower life expectancies, higher likelihood of being victims of crime themselves," he said.

"It's really quite unconscionable the situation we find ourselves in, and a lot of that is driving this."

The province's criminal justice system also costs a lot, with Saskatchewan having a high number of police officers, and spending an average of $570 per person for public safety. Among provinces, only Manitoba's costs for public safety were higher, at $599 per person.

"Fortunately, Saskatchewan police do a good job of solving the high rates of crimes that you have," he said.

Saskatchewan police not only have a high clearance rate for addressing crimes, but the court system is relatively efficient, with the average case taking about 74 days to resolve, according to the report card.

Manitoba launches reform plan

Perrin compares the report card to a diagnostic test — like a doctor telling a patient their cholesterol is high, the report card looks at the symptoms of a "sick justice system," with governments then having to take the next steps.

"Some provinces have taken this as a real catalyst for launching reviews, full reviews of their criminal justice system," Perrin said.

Manitoba, the lowest-ranked province, has just announced its plan to modernize its criminal justice system, with a focus on introducing more restorative justice.

"It would be great to see Saskatchewan similarly focus some effort and attention in improving its criminal justice system and announcing a plan within the next year on how it will do that," said Perrin.

When asked about the report card, Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice released a statement acknowledging there is room to improve its criminal justice system.

It also pointed to some of the measures the ministry has taken, including support for restorative justice programs and support for an Aboriginal Courtworker Program meant to provide Indigenous people appearing before court "fair, just, and culturally sensitive treatment."

The ministry says it has also taken steps to establish Serious Violent Offender Response units in high-crime areas, to find and deter violent offenders.

The ministry notes that in 2016, the provincial auditor conducted an examination of Legal Aid, and that the Saskatchewan Legal Aid Commission is currently implementing recommendations from that audit as well.