Alberta Crown prosecutors will play a bigger role in pre-screening criminal charges before they are laid by police in a move to improve justice system efficiency.
The pre-screening initiative was tried out in Hinton, Canmore and Strathcona County in 2019 and 2020 and the reviews were positive. Last month’s provincial budget set aside $4.6 million to hire 16 pre-charges assessment prosecutors.
By weeding out some charges before cases head to court, the province hopes to take some of the pressure off the court system and speed up prosecutions, especially in the more serious cases. A province-wide rollout of the initiative is expected to be complete by early 2024.
Red Deer RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Mike Evans said following the pilot project’s success, Red Deer detachment because of its size was an early participant in the new system.
“We’ve been doing it now for a couple of years,” said Evans. “The Crown has been able to provide feedback on our files to assist us in securing better chances of conviction.”
Evans said police and Crown prosecutors have always worked together. What has changed is that prosecutors take a closer look at files and at an early stage in the arrest, charging and court appearance process.
For example, through pre-screening a prosecutor may go back to investigating officers to determine if certain evidence is available to support a specific charge. Prosecutors will also weigh whether charges should be laid using the existing standard of likelihood of conviction and public interest.
On the police side, the system gives officers a better sense of what evidence and other information prosecutors are looking for as officers put together the information package they have compiled, known as disclosure, to back up charges. The same disclosure is also provided to defendants and their lawyers so they can determine how to proceed.
“Now, we’re making sure that we’re being a little more methodical in making sure that we’ve got all the boxes checked to make sure that we’ve got all the right information that we can bring forward,” said Evans.
Through pre-screening, prosecutors can ensure all the evidence they need, such as an officer’s notes or other potential evidence, are included in disclosure. Prosecutors also provide ongoing feedback so officers are clear on what information is most useful.
The goal is to ensure that all the information needed to proceed with a case is in place early on, avoiding delays caused by additional requests for disclosure. Ensuring Crown’s have strong cases through pre-vetting is also expected to lead to more defendants pleading guilty, saving valuable court trial time.
As a former major crimes investigator handling the most serious cases, Evans said police routinely worked with prosecutors on how to proceed. In a typical scenario, the prosecutor would look at the evidence the police had on a suspect in custody and authorize certain charges. Often, an investigation would continue and as new evidence was uncovered investigators would approach prosecutors to have additional or upgraded charges authorized.
Under the new system, that sort of scrutiny will be extended to a wider range of cases.