Crown prosecutors’ group says shortage affecting justice system

As in other centres, Red Deer seeing major increases in cases, charges

Crown prosecutors in Red Deer are feeling the crunch along with their counterparts elsewhere in Alberta from a shortage of manpower that is affecting the justice system.

In an unusual move, the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, (ACAA), went public on Wednesday with concerns about what it sees as the immediate need for 85 more prosecutors.

Alberta is failing to fund the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service at levels that adequately support the administration of justice across Alberta, said James Pickard, president of the ACAA.

Breena Smith, an ACAA vice-president and Crown prosecutor in Edmonton, said that while Alberta’s population, number of police officers, and crime severity have all increased, there are 35 fewer Crown prosecutors now than a decade ago.

Red Deer Crown’s office has seen a major increase in the amount of charges that have commenced in the last five years, she said.

In the 2011-12 fiscal year, 10,947 criminal charges commenced within provincial court alone in Red Deer. In 2015-16 there were 14,377 criminal charges commenced. “That 30 per cent of increase has been so dramatic that … there’s not enough (Crown prosecutors) to keep up.”

Since Jan. 1, about 200 criminal cases have been stayed in all of Alberta to try and manage Crown prosecutors’ caseloads. The charges stayed include impaired driving, assault, fraud, theft and weapons charges.

While Smith did not have numbers of stayed cases in Red Deer related to the shortage of prosecutors, but she said in almost every Crown prosecutor office in Alberta is staying files.

On Tuesday, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Edmonton stayed 15 separate criminal cases there because of insufficient staff resources to take the cases to trial.

The number of Queen’s Bench criminal trials in Red Deer has more than tripled from 2007-08 to 2013-14 from 29 to 91. This actual number of criminal charges in Queen’s Bench Red Deer has increased by 356 per cent, she said.

“That’s by far the largest increase in the province for Queen’s Bench,” Smith said.

There are currently 35 vacant Crown prosecutor positions in Alberta as a result of provincial budget constraints. There are 262 prosecutors now. The ACAA says that with Alberta’s growing population and increases in criminal cases and charges, another 50 prosecutors are needed.

“We would even say that’s what we need to start with. We can’t say that will fix where we are,” Smith said.

The number of Crown prosecutors has remained relatively unchanged since 2006. The population of Alberta since then has grown by almost one million — from 3.29 million to 4.25 million

A Supreme Court of Canada ruling last summer, known as the Jordan decision, set stricter time-lines for criminal cases. Except in exceptional circumstances, criminal trials must take place within 18 months in provincial courts and 30 months in superior court, which in Alberta is Queen’s Bench.

The ACAA says that the Jordan ruling did not create the problem, it just made the public more aware of it.

The association raised its concerns with the Justice Minister in November but Smith said there’s been no substantive response.

On Wednesday, the government announced the provincial budget is coming out March 16. “We’re hopeful that they will recognize the urgency of this,” Smith said, adding prosecutors have been working evenings and weekends to try and shoulder the extra burden of work.

“We just can’t keep up. We just don’t have enough people.”

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