Days after Terrace council members pressed provincial cabinet ministers to deal with prolific offenders and others plaguing the downtown core, attorney general David Eby faced renewed questions from BC Liberal MLAs about crime in their own communities.
During question period in the Legislative Assembly April 5, the MLAs wanted to know why the government was not taking action against crime and prolific offenders.
The Liberal MLAs argued that prolific offenders are being let back on the streets, where they continue to commit assaults, thefts, vandalism and murder. Failure to prosecute these offenders is causing more mayhem on the streets and ultimately resulting in the public losing faith in the justice system, they said.
“Last week we were shocked to hear the attorney general deny the problem of escalating random assaults and prolific offenders. But in community after community across B.C., we are hearing the opposite,” said Michael Lee, MLA for Vancouver-Langara, referencing two instances from Victoria in March – a fatal stabbing and an attack on a family on the street.
Eby reiterated his stand that the Crown counsel is being wrongly blamed for doing their job of implementing federal law and referenced Bill C-75, which talks about using a principle of restraint for police and courts to ensure that release at the earliest opportunity is favoured over detention.
Eby said no one was denying that there’s an issue with prolific offenders but he said there are other factors to consider before sentencing people, especially if they are grappling with mental health and addiction issues.
Kelowna-Mission MLA Rene Merrifield brought forward the case of 17-year-old Dallas Zackodnik suffering a fractured skull and collapsed lung after being attacked by two men. Four months after the attack, Merrifield said her constituent is still waiting for justice as the attackers face no charges.
While Eby was not aware of the incident, he said his office was willing to look into the specific case if the victim wanted.
More concerns were placed before Eby during the question period including Vancouver’s Chinatown losing its tourism appeal due to vandalism and safety concerns, Vancouver businesses grappling with break and enters, broken windows, shoplifting and assaults, Williams Lake Search & Rescue losing a quarter-million-dollar specialized vehicle and businesses like McDonald’s closing in downtown Kamloops.
Members of the opposition called on the provincial government to accept there is a “massive crime problem” rather than continuing to ignore it.
Kamloops MLA Peter Milobar claimed the number of no-charge recommendations between 2017 and 2020 had increased by 45 per cent. While Eby contested Milobar’s statistics, he did admit there was an increase in the number of no-charge decisions.
“I can say that in the year before the pandemic, 84 per cent of charges were approved by Crown counsel. In 2020-21, the first year of the pandemic, that went to 77 percent. It is a decrease of 7 percent in charge approvals by Crown counsel in a single year,” Eby said in the assembly.
The attorney general went on to attribute the increase in no-charges trend to the pandemic as Crown counsel as well as judges were reluctant to sentence people to jail due to concerns of COVID-19 outbreaks
“Essentially sentencing someone to contract COVID was not something that the courts were willing to contemplate at that time for certain offences, especially people with compromised immune systems and so on, as you often see with people in provincial court,” Eby added.
The attorney general told the MLAs he will further look into this issue and has asked the Crown counsel to provide him with information about these statistics.
Meanwhile, members of the opposition, such as Skeena BC Liberal MLA Ellis Ross dismiss the pandemic excuse provided by Eby and say that crime in cities has been rising steadily for the past five years, even before COVID-19.
In a phone call from Victoria, Ross also said that while Eby talks about federal law limiting Crown counsel from detaining prolific offenders, he fails to mention the fact that the provincial government, specifically the attorney general, has the power to direct the prosecution in terms of detention for some of these crimes.
“Right now, they’re blaming the federal laws, they’re blaming COVID, they’re finding every excuse in the book, except they’re not actually looking at their own powers of direction to the prosecution.”