I come to praise Peter MacKay not to bury him

January 26, 2015

I come to praise Peter MacKay not to bury him.

Last week the Minister of Justice – Peter MacKay – responded to RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson’s blaming a failing of the criminal justice system for the death of RCMP Constable David Wynn.

Wynn was murdered by Shawn Rehn – a 34 year old recidivist who, despite a lengthy criminal record and multiple sets of outstanding charges, had been released on bail in September.

MacKay cautioned against any knee jerk reactions: “I don’t think, in my view, in my experience, having some sort of a pause where we have a full-blown examination or royal commission or some sort of a study is really going to provide us the answers that we need.” As MacKay noted “This is an individual who, I think, if someone was to try to examine his past criminal behaviour, wouldn’t have led to the conclusion that he was necessarily going to be a cop killer.”

MacKay’s position represents a clear break from past Conservative criminal justice policy – which has been entirely reactionary.  

Controversial cyber-bullying and lawful access legislation was a direct reaction to the cases of Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, Jamie Hubley.  Sébastien’s Law – a bill that introduced major changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act was introduced in response to the killing of a 19-year-old Quebec boy.  Legislation intended to provide more protection for police dogs – Quanto’s law was introduced months after an Edmonton police dog was stabbed to death.  The name of the dog – you guessed it – Quonto.   

The government has a history of using sensational and unusual cases to justify major changes to the criminal law.  Why?  High profile cases provide political cover for ideological legislation that plays well with the Conservative base but often does little to protect society.  

It is refreshing to see MacKay take the principled position and realize that bad facts can make bad law.  

It was a breath of fresh air to not only see MacKay but aside partisan attacks but to embrace the position of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.  I suppose even MacKay is open to new ideas.

Speaking to the Montreal crowd MacKay ‘committed sociology’ saying, “The answers that we need are the ongoing efforts to prevent crime, to deal specifically with individuals who are drifting, who are feeling disconnected and marginalized”.

Disconnected.  Marginalized.  It almost as if MacKay is suggesting that we need to look at the root causes of crime.  It is time Canada has a Justice Minister who recognized that understanding root causes of crime could be used for more than partisan fundraising.

MacKay’s comments should not be explained away because they were made in Montreal while announcing funding for programs to reintegrate young offenders into society.  It would be insulting to suggest that the fact that Quebec residents were the strongest supporters of non-prison based sanctions had anything to do with MacKay’s restrained comments.

Rehn was released on bail with the consent of an Edmonton police officer who was acting for the crown.  A cynic may think that MacKay’s comments are simply a defence of these agents of the state.  

After all, MacKay has been a fervent supporter of Conservative mandatory minimum sentences – a tool that acts to transfer discretion from the judiciary to crown prosecutors and police.  The very people who used their discretion to agree to release Rehn      

But MacKay is right – tragic incidents are very ’hard to predict’.  As noted by the John Howard Society, our bail system is becoming risk averse at the expense of reasonableness.   For every case of an individual who is inappropriately released there are hundreds of accused persons – who are presumed innocent – that are inappropriately detained in custody.

The fundamental principles of our justice system – the right to reasonable bail, the presumption of innocence, the paramountcy of the Charter –  don’t come without cost.  

The real tragedy is that our correctional system failed.  Rehn had been incarcerated in the federal system and that system failed to rehabilitate him.

Although it came too late to prevent a tragedy, there is some small comfort in knowing that Peter MacKay may have learned there is more to keeping the public safe than tough on crime rhetoric.

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