Manitoba’s Criminal Justice System Modernization Strategy: A Good Start with Much More Work to Do
Last month, the Manitoba Government announced a new approach to reforming the criminal justice system titled the “Manitoba Criminal Justice Modernization Strategy”1 Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said that the strategy is a response to Manitoba’s high rates of crime, overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, high adult incarceration rates, and high violent crime recidivism rates.2
The strategy aims to improve safety, increase access to justice, and address causes of crime3. What exactly is this plan, how will it help Manitobans, and is it enough to address serious the problems that it has outlined?
The modernization strategy is based on 4 pillars, which tie into Manitoba’s criminal justice system objectives. Firstly, the provincial government is looking to prevent crime through the use of community mobilization programs by having stakeholders, law enforcement, and government work together.4 This involves assisting individuals with metal health challenges related to committing crime. The objective behind this pillar is to improve community safety and reduce the number of people who come in contact with the criminal justice system.5
Secondly, the government is looking to address serious criminal cases by increasing the use of direct indictments or alternative means of to deal with the matter.6 This relates to the objective of treating offenders appropriately based on the seriousness of their offence and their individual circumstances.7
Thirdly, the government is looking to increase the use of restorative justice to address crime from a non-traditional perspective that focuses of reconciliation with and among Indigenous peoples.8 This approach looks to achieve the objective of reducing court delay and the use of incarceration, especially considering the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in jails.9
Lastly, the government is interested in re-integrating offenders into society through probation and community supervision, which should assist in reducing recidivism.10 The objective is to support offenders when they re-integrate and prevent them from having contact with the criminal justice system in the future.11
Impact on Manitobans
The modernization strategy relies on working collaboratively various stakeholders within the justice system to be successful. Community mobilization is discussed in detail in the strategy, which involves having justice and law officials work with communities directly to assist with supporting individuals who have been involved in the justice system.12 Mental health addictions are going to be dealt with by looking at how other governmental departments interact with individuals with mental health concerns.13
There is a renewed sense of priority in using restorative justice in the strategy. Not only does restorative justice reduce recidivism rates, it provides a culturally appropriate means for Indigenous offenders to be dealt with in the justice system.14 The report states that the police will be using restorative justice.15 There is a Restorative Justice Centre that was launched in the province in 2017, and it assists Crowns by connecting accused individuals through referrals to agencies with restorative justice programming.16 The Restorative Justice Centre also works with victims to provide programming and support.
The Manitoba government is looking to ensure that more individuals can be granted bail and receive a non-custodial sentence if they pose low risk to public safety.17 The Department of Justice will release annual reports on critical information, such as trial timelines and how restorative and diversion programs are being used.18
Is it Enough?
While the modernization strategy is filled with several wonderful ideas, there are reasons to be concerned about implementing those ideas. There was description of what kind of support will be provided to offenders through the Responsible Reintegration Initiative. It is known that probation officers will supervise offenders, although it is essential for individuals who are re-integrating to have constant and consistent support from individuals. There should be a way to work with offenders to create a full re-integration plan with descriptions of their goals and the contact information for agencies and organizations to assist them. Many offenders can benefit from having a safe space to visit when facing difficulties and setbacks when re-integrating. Whether they are trying to find employment, a safe place to stay, ways to reunite or stay away from partners, family, and friends, reintegrating individuals would benefit greatly from having access to organizations with staff who can mentor and direct them to resources to address their concerns.
Appendix A of the report includes a list of 21 stakeholders that the Department of Justice communicated with when creating the modernization strategy.
Many of these stakeholders are significant actors within the justice system, such as the Winnipeg Police Service and the RCMP, and there is significant representation of Indigenous organizations. There was no description of how much the stakeholder feedback changed the strategy. One common concerns is that governments often listen to stakeholders, but are not always effective at implementing feedback directly into their strategies. While it is inevitable that not all stakeholders will wholeheartedly agree with government plans, there were a number of stakeholder organizations that were listed in the appendix that were critical of the strategy.19 What could have resulted in effective stakeholder consultation is a working group consisting of representatives of each of the stakeholders. The working group could consolidate stakeholder recommendations and well-thought out ideas that could then be reviewed by the Minister of Justice and the Department of Justice alongside the working group to ensure clarity of understanding.
Members of the New Democratic opposition party in Manitoba and other stakeholders expressed concerns with the modernization strategy because there was inadequate description of how the government’s objectives will be met with what funding. John Hutton from the John Howard Society stated that it costs $204 per day for someone to be incarcerated,20 which is a significant amount of money. I find it shocking that there are more individuals in Manitoba who are incarcerated and awaiting trial than convicted individuals. This means that many people who are supposed to be presumed to be innocent are outnumbering those who have been found guilty, and at a significant financial cost. A portion of the cost of housing individuals who are awaiting trial in jails can be allocated to strengthening community organizations that provide supports to individuals who have been in contact with the criminal justice system. The funds spent on incarcerating one individual can be used to help multiple individuals and involve the use of methods such as restorative justice that are known for reducing recidivism rates.
While collaboration with community stakeholders is essential for effective offender re-integration, the provincial government has recently decreased funding for the organizations and agencies that provide essential services to those involved in the criminal justice system. In 2017, it was announced that there would be a 20 percent cut in funding to organizations such as the Elizabeth Fry Society and John Howard Society, which directly impacted their bail support and community supervision programs.21 These are the same programs that the government is relying on in its strategy, meaning that organizations will be asked to support more individuals with less funding. While every funding dollar given to these agencies should be maximized, there is a limit to how much limited funding can help individuals, especially when they are re-integrating into society and require more individual support and resources to successfully live in their communities. The provincial government has every right to demand high value for the services that it is funding, but it should not have cut funding and then asked the same organizations to play a part in supporting more people with increasingly limited funds.
The modernization strategy discusses the importance of assessing major crimes, but there are more people who commit less serious crimes than serious crimes. People who commit less serious crimes require assistance from the justice system to help to prevent them from becoming serious crime offenders. There appears to be a reactive approach to minor crime offenders. While it is difficult to be able to adequately assist each individual who is involved in the justice system with all possible supports, minor crime offenders should not be overlooked. When considering that mental health strategies are important, people who may have minor or undiagnosed mental health concerns may commit less serious crimes and not receive attention until their health deteriorates and the severity of their actions escalate.
Lastly, the government’s approach to restorative justice is not innovative in that restorative justice is used regularly throughout the province. The change would be the increased use of restorative justice and enabling the discretion of Crowns to suggest restorative and other non-traditional methods for holding victims accountable before resorting to the traditional court system. The government’s plan is to increase the use of restorative justice programs that already exist, and it is questionable whether accurate funding will be provided to organizations that provide restorative justice funding. When I tried to look into the Manitoba Restorative Justice Centre, which was established in 2017, the only place where I could find information about it was in the modernization strategy. There could be more public information about this centre available to the public to ensure accountability.
Upon looking through the Manitoba Government’s 2018 budget, I discovered a $2.5 million increase for community corrections, while $250,000 was increased for community-based crime prevention strategies.22 These figures demonstrate that while the government wants to see a lower incarceration rate, it is not backing up necessary community re-integration programs with funding. The government cannot implement significant components of the modernization strategy with such little funding. Restorative justice was mentioned once in the government’s budget speech, where it was noted that $100,00 would be allocated to one restorative justice program.23 There was a decrease in the Department of Justice’s funding for community corrections programs and external agencies.24 The government’s ambitious modernization strategy does not seem to be supported by funding based on the 2018 budget.
Overall, Manitoba’s Criminal Justice System Modernization Strategy demonstrates that the provincial government is concerned with the state of the criminal justice system and wants to reform it. The strategy has broad objectives, and action items have insufficient explanation and a lack of demonstration of a concrete plan to implement changes, as evidenced by minimal funding increases. I have concerns regarding the province’s decision to cut funding to some of the organizations that it relies on to achieve its objectives. The strategy is reactive when it comes to addressing small crime offenders, and does not seem to initiate significant reform by simply stating that it wants to increase the use of restorative justice. This modernization strategy is in need of significant detail and planning, and the public deserves to be informed of those details as decisions are made. This strategy seems to have been announced to create discussion about the problems within the criminal justice system, and does less to present concrete solutions that are properly funded and strategized. The modernization strategy is a good start, but there is much more work to be done in order to resolve problems within the criminal justice system such as Manitoba’s high rates of crime, overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, high adult incarceration rates, and high violence crime recidivism rates.
1 Government of Manitoba, News Release, “Manitoba Government Announces Criminal Justice System Modernization Strategy” (9 March 2018), online: <http://news.gov.mb.ca/news/index.html?archive=&item=43302>.
5 Manitoba, Government of Manitoba, Criminal Justice System Modernization Strategy, (March 2018), at 2, online: <http://www.gov.mb.ca/justice/pubs/criminaljusticereform.pdf>.
6 Supra note 1.
7 Supra note 5.
8 Supra note 1.
9 Supra note 5.
10 Supra note 1.
11 Supra note 5.
12 Ibid at 3.
14Ibid at 5.
17 Ibid at 6.
18 Ibid at 7.
19 https://manitobachiefs.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/03-09-18-AMC-news-release-on-justice-strategy.pdf; https://winnipeg.ctvnews.ca/manitoba-government-releases-criminal-justice-system-modernization-strategy-1.3836416; https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/little-cash-for-justice-reforms-critics-say-476445993.html