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December 5, 2000

Four of five Canadians lack faith in justice system: survey

'Not very encouraging'

Tom Arnold
National Post

Just one in five Canadians believes the country's criminal courts are doing a good job of determining the guilt or innocence of accused persons, according to a new survey examining public attitudes about the criminal justice system.

The Statistics Canada survey, in which 26,000 people aged 15 or older were interviewed, found that the number of Canadians losing confidence in the courts drops even lower among respondents in Ontario and in all four Western provinces.

"It's not very encouraging," said Scott Newark, special counsel for the Ontario government's Office for Victims of Crime. "The justice system is one of those public systems that inherently relies on public confidence. It is a real cornerstone of our democracy.

"You don't have a public justice system if you don't have public confidence in it," said Mr. Newark, who served as a Crown prosecutor in Alberta for 12 years. "We should pay attention when people are telling us they don't have confidence in it and that is clearly what they are telling us here."

Among the reasons for the changing attitudes, Mr. Newark said, are high-profile criminal trials that produce poor conviction rates or light sentences, increasing public and media attention to faint hope hearings -- which offer killers a chance to get out of jail early -- and reports of prison escapes and parole violations.

The loss of public confidence may also be attributed to Canada's most well-known miscarriages of justice: Donald Marshall in Nova Scotia, Guy Paul Morin in Ontario, Thomas Sophonow of Winnipeg and David Milgaard in Saskatchewan, who were all imprisoned for murders they did not commit.

The survey found younger Canadians are more likely to want offenders sent to jail.

In 1999, 75% of respondents aged 15 to 24 selected prison when asked what should be done with adult offenders convicted of repeated break-and-enter offences.

The number drops as Canadians get older, with 61% of seniors choosing the jail option. The study also found:

- Just one in four Canadians believes the prison system is doing a good job of controlling and supervising prisoners;

- About one in 10 Canadians feels the system is doing a good job of supervising offenders on parole. Less than two in 10 believe it is doing a good job of choosing those who should be released and are unlikely to reoffend. The numbers are even lower among those polled in Western Canada, particularly in British Columbia;

- Just 15% of those surveyed felt the courts are doing a good job helping victims;

- Men and women differ in their attitudes toward sentencing adult offenders. Men are more likely than women to want a prison sentence for someone convicted of repeat break-and-enter offences, while women are more likely than men to prefer jail time for someone convicted of a minor assault;

- 62% of Canadians felt the police were doing a good job ensuring the safety of citizens. Satisfaction with police increases with age. People who had been victims of violence in the previous 12 months were less likely to hold positive attitudes about police;

- Westerners are less satisfied with police, courts, prisons and parole than other Canadians.

Of Canadians' worsening attitudes about the country's prison and parole system, Mr. Newark stated: "It is entirely deserving and is a very damning indictment of the corrections system in this country."

Jennifer Tufts, a research analyst for the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics who wrote the paper, said the overall results indicate Canadians "are highly satisfied with the police but less satisfied with the criminal courts, prison and parole systems."

The survey -- which had a $1.9-million budget -- tested attitudes but did not determine why Canadians held their perceptions about the criminal justice system.

The survey suggests few Canadians support jail time for first-time offenders, but many favour it for repeat offenders, Ms. Tufts said.

A large majority of those surveyed supported alternatives to jail -- such as probation, fines and community service -- for first-time young offenders.

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  • Statistics Canada
    Read the report on perceptions of the criminal justice system.
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