One of the chief complaints people have against the Canadian court system is that it takes such a long time coming to a verdict. You don’t have to try very hard to get people worked up over a perception that the accused have far too many opportunities for legal manoeuvering, mostly aimed at delaying a verdict for as long as possible.
The incentive is to have an accused person spend as much time as possible in remand, in order to get maximum benefit of the two-for-one credit that is often given to convicted criminals for time spent in custody.
For every day a person spends in remand awaiting a verdict, judges frequently award two days’ credit against their sentence. Sometimes, they get three days for every day in remand.
So, if you’re facing a two-year sentence for a serious crime, you can scrape a year off your sentence by having your lawyer wrangle six months’ worth of procedural delays. A six-month delay of justice is not difficult to achieve; many can stretch the process a year or more, then plead guilty, and walk out of jail just a few weeks after being sentenced to federal time.
Even more frustrating, large portions of court time are consumed by docket items that are mere appearances to confirm another delay. Sometimes, you wonder how often judges ever see a real trial.
The federal Tories can read an opinion poll, and they recognize widespread frustration with “gaming” the system. A www.reddeeradvocate.com readers poll ran at about 85 per cent in favour of killing the credit.
Which is exactly what the federal government intends to do. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told reporters on Wednesday that he hoped to introduce a bill in the Commons by today to curb the credit, and he’s challenging opposition parties to fast-track it through the House.
So far, everyone in Parliament seems willing to go along. The Liberals say they had the idea first and have been urging the government to do away it. The NDP are a little more guarded: they support the concept, but don’t want the change to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
The Bloc would like to talk a bit more. Their justice critic, Real Menard, wonders why the bill needs to be rushed through in one day.
We wonder the same thing. Supposedly, there were good reasons for applying the credit in the first place and we shouldn’t let them be lost.
One downside of killing the credit would be that the rich get a better class of justice than the poor. If you can post bail, you await trial at home, and probably at work, too. Credit for time in remand sort of evened the balance.
Next, if there’s no benefit for staying in remand, there will be a lot more legal manoeuvering not to go there. The pressure just moves somewhere else — and we may end up seeing more people deciding to skip out of town during the time it takes for a trial to be held. If that happens, you can be assured it will lead to some really bad outcomes.
If the credit rule is quashed, a rich person could delay justice even longer, because the pressure would be on to try cases of people in remand first.
Finally, not every accused person even wants the credit. It is not uncommon for people convicted of serious crimes to request a two-year-plus sentence. Doing time in a federal penitentiary gives one access to treatment for addictions that people on the street cannot get.
Without doubt, the two-for-one credit is being abused. If we get rid of it, let’s not move backwards into abuses that were worse.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.