The justice system has seen a slight drop in crime rates and a boost in legal aid funding relative to a year ago, but these improvements have been overshadowed by an increase in costs, lengthier court delays and the persistent over-representation of Indigenous people in prison, new research has found.
The Macdonald-Laurier Institute's second annual justice system report card, released Monday, calls on the government to invest in more data collection and monitoring to better identify and track problems that have, for too long, gone unacknowledged or unaddressed.
"A well-functioning, fair and just criminal justice system is vital to Canadians," the report says. "It is crucial that better data, performance monitoring and accountability become not only accepted, but expected, as part of our criminal justice system."
The Ottawa-based think tank began its assessment in 2016, tracking various justice system metrics to rank the provinces and territories in the areas of fairness, efficiency, cost, public safety and access to justice.
The 2017 analysis dubbed Ontario the most improved jurisdiction after it rose to fourth place from seventh, while Quebec and British Columbia each dropped two rankings.
Prince Edward Island continued to lead the pack, while Manitoba remained the lowest-ranked province, thanks in part to having one of the lowest victim restitution rates in the country and the highest proportion of accused offenders on remand while awaiting trial.
The report also found a "shockingly high" rate of violent crime in the territories — in some cases 10 times greater than their provincial counterparts.
The assessment highlighted some areas of improvement, noting that between 2016 and 2017 Canada as a whole saw a slight drop in crime rates, fewer police officers required per capita and rising support for legal aid.
Among the many differences identified between Canada's various jurisdictions, a much higher proportion of accused people were found to be unlawfully at large in Quebec and Prince Edward Island compared with Nunavut, New Brunswick, or Ontario.
Public confidence in the justice system and the courts were found to be lowest in Manitoba, B.C. and Quebec and highest in New Brunswick and Ontario. As for public confidence in police, the highest levels were observed in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, and lowest in Prince Edward Island, B.C. and Quebec.
While the rates of police solving non-violent crimes has declined in most parts of the country over the last five years, B.C. earned the distinction of having the lowest rates of resolving both violent and non-violent crimes, at about 52 per cent and 20 per cent respectively.
While Indigenous incarceration rates are disproportionately high everywhere in Canada, they are especially high in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, the report notes.
The assessment also calls for more research into how Canadians view the police, courts and justice system at large, as well as more information on victims of crime, including referral rates for victim services.
"We hope this report card will spur necessary reforms to make our criminal justice system more efficient, fairer, and better serve the needs of victims," said report co-author Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who once worked as a legal adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Perrin pointed to the need for more data collection and analysis by Statistics Canada in areas such as recidivism rates, the proportion of Indigenous offenders who are incarcerated and the number of criminal cases that are stayed due to unreasonable delay.