Prime Time Crime  


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Oct. 8, 2007)


Make the criminal justice system accountable


  By John Martin

In a ground-breaking decision that caught most everyone by surprise, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that police can be held liable for substandard criminal investigations.  The ruling opens the door to the “wrongfully convicted” to seek compensation in instances where negligence on behalf of the police can be clearly demonstrated.

The case was brought forward by an aboriginal man who spent 20 months in jail for a robbery for which he was later exonerated.  The 6-3 majority decision has raised concerns there may be a chilling effect whereby police are reluctant to pursue investigations on account of being held liable for any errors or mistakes made along the way.  This is a valid concern.  On the other hand, many professionals such as physicians are already held liable for less than stellar performances. 

But while the Supreme Court has just made police even more accountable for the work they do, how about applying the concept to the rest of the country’s criminal justice system?

What about judges who, despite being presented considerable evidence that an arrestee is a flight risk and should not be granted bail, opt to release the person anyway?  And what about instances where police plead with a judge to deny bail because someone is likely to reoffend upon release?  Should judges be held liable for any damages committed by the person they release despite such warnings?

While we’re at it, what about judges who hand out conditional sentences and house arrest in cases where prosecutors and police insist a period of custody is necessary for the safety of the public?  No judge in this country has ever been held accountable for the pain and suffering committed by people who have been released into the community when all the evidence suggests incarceration is justified.

Then we have the parole board that routinely votes in favour of early release despite the warnings of psychologists and prison officials that someone is a high risk to reoffend.  Again, no matter how often parole board members have released dangerous offenders who ruin people’s lives within days of being granted parole, they are not held liable for these decisions.

There are numerous cases where victims of recently released parolees have been given cash settlements by the government as hush money to avoid the publicity that would accompany a civil case.  Wouldn’t it make sense, just as we’ve done with the police, to make those players liable for their screw-ups?

It’s interesting that the Supreme Court has decided that police, and police only, should be held accountable for their level of performance.  In survey after survey the Canadian public rank the police as having more integrity and demonstrating a higher level of professionalism than any other sector of the criminal justice system.  The judiciary is so far down the list you can barely find them.

There is nothing wrong with a ruling that holds police accountable and will force them to take ownership of their missteps.  But it’s a mystery that the Supreme Court has little interest in applying a similar standard to the judiciary or other criminal justice decision makers.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at

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