The pressures on central Alberta’s court system run deeper than a shortage of prosecutors, says a Red Deer lawyer and former Crown attorney.
Budget cuts, changes in law, technology, and even demographics have combined to make the job of prosecuting criminals harder and the likelihood of charges being thrown out higher, said Jason Snider, who served as a Crown prosecutor for more than a decade before going into private practice in 2014.
Premier Jason Kenney reacted quickly this week after the media highlighted that hundreds of charges — mostly for minor offences — were being stayed in Calgary because of a shortage of Crown prosecutors.
Kenney declared the possibility of criminals getting off scot-free as unacceptable. He moved to put another $10 million into the prosecution service budget and promised to hire 50 more prosecutors.
Breena Smith, vice-president of the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, said the issue is not specific to Calgary, but they did not have any Red Deer and central Alberta numbers yet.
Smith said the association is working on updating the statistics it released when a similar Crown prosecutor shortage was highlighted in 2017. The association called for 85 new prosecutors then.
At that time, it was pointed out Red Deer Crown’s office had seen a major increase in the number of charges over five years.
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.
The NDP government responded to the controversy with its own 50-prosecutor pledge then.
However, most of those ended up in a new prosecutor-staffed bail office and not regular courtrooms, said Snider, who is president of the local Criminal Defence Lawyers Association.
“They didn’t bother to mention that the 50 new Crowns were primarily because of a court decision that said prosecutors had to run bail hearings, not police officers. It was a smoke and mirrors announcement.”
Red Deer has seen two or three Crown prosecutors added since 2017 and vacant positions have been filled.
“But there continues to be a churn of Crowns. It’s a hard job and the NDP have frozen their salary so people were not moving up,” said Snider.
“So there have been quite a few of them who have left in the past couple of years.”
Red Deer prosecutors who handle a lot of rural cases are busier than average. Snider said they often have about 30 to 50 per cent more files than a city prosecutor.
Unlike Calgary, which has had difficulty finding Crown prosecutors for courtrooms designated for low-complexity trials, Red Deer deals with them in regular courtrooms.
“In Red Deer, we’ve generally had enough Crowns to man courtrooms,” said Snider. “But because of the volume of files, courtrooms are overbooked.”
That means Crown prosecutors must do their own triage, which typically means dropping the least serious cases.
Another issue facing Red Deer’s courthouse, is the lack of experienced prosecutors. Demographics, and the retirement of baby boomers, have played a role in a prosecutor office that is significantly younger on average than when Snider was a Crown.
“I think that Red Deer’s complement of positions of Crown would probably be sufficient if the Crown’s office hadn’t become so junior,” he said, adding the average amount of experience has dropped by a decade.
“Experience matters when it comes to being a prosecutor.”
Veteran Crowns can handle more files and are better able to confidently work out resolutions with defence lawyers, rather than requiring a trial, he said.
Changes in law have also added to prosecutors’ workloads. The government’s victims’ rights legislation passed in 2015 requires more consultation with victims by Crown prosecutors.
Even technological changes have played a role. A new electronic disclosure system requires more input from Crown prosecutors, and it can be slower than the old paper system.
“Things that used to be done by support staff is now done by prosecutors,” he said.
“I never recall ever sending a defence lawyer an email at 11 p.m. or at midnight, beccause I was never working that late.
“I routinely get emails from various prosecutors at all hours of the evening, into the night and on the weekends, because they’re working.”
Alberta Justice and the Solicitor General could not provide any information on central Alberta.