Premier David Eby surprised many on Sunday when he announced a government directive to Crown prosecutors to do more, where possible, on “the risk that repeat violent offenders pose to public safety in British Columbia.”
For months, both Eby and Attorney General Murray Rankin had been saying issuing such a directive would run contrary to federal laws on bail, and that the idea – first raised by the Opposition BC Liberals – largely wasn’t a doable way to respond to rising random attacks by violent repeat offenders who keep getting arrested and then let out on the streets to reoffend again while awaiting trial.
So what changed?
There’s an interesting backstory to Eby’s shift.
It starts on Oct. 14, when Eby and former transit police chief Doug LePard quietly met for coffee at the University of British Columbia, near Eby’s home.
Eby had hired LePard and criminologist Amanda Butler to co-author a report on repeat offenders, which had been released two weeks earlier, and had exhaustively researched how government could respond.
But LePard wanted to tell Eby that he’d determined the BC Prosecution Service, headed by assistant deputy attorney general Peter Juk, wasn’t being as responsive as it could be on the issue. It was pushing back harder than necessary on change. And unlike the rest of the justice system, the prosecution service wasn’t offering suggestions on how it could improve on repeat offenders.
“I expressed a little bit of frustration there,” LePard said in an interview.
“He listened carefully and didn’t comment, and he did whatever he did based on what I’m sure was input from a wide variety of sources.”
That was the last LePard heard of the issue.
But I’m told Eby came away from the coffee meeting concerned about the information he was getting from the Ministry of Attorney General, and began to shift his perspective.
He did as he often does, and started conducting his own research and digging into the topic himself. What emerged Sunday was the declaration that government could, and would, intervene with a directive, whether the BC Prosecution Service liked it or not.
“In some circumstances, it is not only appropriate but necessary for Crown Counsel to take a more stringent approach to bail,” reads the new directive.
It adds “the protection of the public” as a matter of concern to “repeat violent offenders” and builds on similar directives to Crown in areas like intimate partner violence, child victims and sexual offences cases.
Ultimately, it’s up to judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to hold someone in custody while awaiting charges. But prosecutors have a role to play in opposing or consenting bail, which can carry weight for a judge.
“The direction that was given by Attorney General Rankin to the prosecutors was to, within the federal rules, to make it absolutely clear to prosecutors but also to all British Columbians that we will work to the full extent within the federal law to make sure that violent offenders are not released waiting for their trial, to make sure that those violent offenders are kept off the street,” Eby said Sunday.
“The bail policy has been rewritten to reflect the realities of where we are right now in British Columbia under the new federal rules and what people are seeing in communities,” the premier added.
“We need a new policy to respond to those new realities.
“But that policy alone is not going to solve these problems. Coordination between prosecutors, police, probation officers, nonprofit service providers, health-care workers. This is what's going to provide safer communities.”
That larger coordination is part of Eby’s sweeping crime plan.
It calls for new repeat violent offender response teams that will pair 21 dedicated prosecutors with 21 probation offers, as well as nine correctional supervisors, to monitor high-risk repeat offenders and make sure that information is available to everyone to try and keep them in custody awaiting trial.
It also commits to better data sharing, so Crown will have the best information from police to give to judges who are deciding whether to let someone back on the streets on bail.
And it promises to expand mental health mobile crisis response teams that partner police with mental health civilian experts, to try and de-escalate crises.
“This action plan has two key tracks – one around enforcement, recognizing we have zero tolerance for violence in our communities, making sure people are protected,” said Eby.
“The second track around intervening, helping people break the cycle in and out of jail, preventing crime before it happens.”
Total price tag: $76.5 million.
The plan was widely praised by Vancouver and Victoria police, the BC RCMP, the mayors of Nanaimo, Surrey and Vancouver, as well as mental health and First Nations groups.
It comes only two days after Eby was sworn into office. “I told you that I’d hit the ground running,” he said Sunday.
But as good as the plan may be, it’s open to very valid criticism from the Opposition BC Liberals, who point out all of the changes could have been made months ago, and many have been demanded by experts for quite some time.
“More than 900 innocent people have been violently attacked by strangers in Vancouver alone since the BC Liberals first called on David Eby to issue a directive to Crown Prosecutors and end his harmful catch and release policy for repeat criminal offenders,” Liberal leader Kevin Falcon said in a release.
“It’s clear that what was announced this morning had been prepared for months and was withheld for David Eby to opportunistically take the credit. For David Eby to play politics with public safety is unconscionable.”
Still, the comprehensive crime plan will go a long way to neutering questions the Liberals had hoped to ask in the legislature this week about why Eby had allowed the crime situation to so dramatically worsen during his five years as attorney general.
And ultimately, the package of reforms is exactly what experts like LePard had been calling for.
“I was extremely impressed,” said LePard.
“It was more than we expected to happen so soon. All of it is either highly consistent with our recommendations or discussions. So of course we’re very pleased government is taking such definitive and substantial action on these very complex issues.”
Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.