British Columbia

B.C. prosecutors aim to tackle bias and racism to reduce 'unacceptable' number of Indigenous incarcerations

The B.C. Prosecution Service says policy changes are needed to recognize the impacts of colonialism, displacement and residential schools on Indigenous people — as both accused and victims of crimes.

'The criminal justice system is failing Indigenous people'

Indigenous people, especially women and girls, are 'significantly' more likely to be victims of crime, the B.C. Prosecution Service says. (David Horemans/CBC)

The B.C. Prosecution Service is bringing in a number of changes to address the "unacceptable" overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

In a statement, prosecutors said several new policies would be added and existing policies revised when it comes to Indigenous people.

"The criminal justice system is failing Indigenous people,"  Assistant Deputy Attorney General Peter Juk said in the statement.

"Ongoing bias, racism and systemic discrimination only make the problem worse. These facts must inform every consideration, decision or action we take in relation to Indigenous persons."

In the B.C. youth criminal justice system, Indigenous youth are highly over-represented, a Statistics Canada report found in 2018. (GP Mendoza)

The prosecution service noted that the Supreme Court of Canada has been calling for justice systems across the country to recognize the impacts of colonialism, displacement and residential schools on Indigenous people.

It noted that those factors have led to many negative impacts on Indigenous people, including higher levels of incarceration.

It added that Indigenous people, especially women and girls, are "significantly" more likely to be victims of crime.

Bail, probation, charging

The new or revised policies cover bail, probation and charging considerations.

The new bail policy, in part, instructs Crown counsel to consider biases faced by Indigenous people and only seek pre-trial detention when there is a significant risk of the defendant fleeing, if their crime is a violent one or if their release could endanger others.

The new probation policy instructs Crown to consider Indigenous offenders' unique circumstances when seeking conditions, including what services and employment opportunities exist in their communities, traditions within their community and access to necessary rehabilitation.

The revised charging policy, among other changes, now directs Crown to consider the impacts of colonialism when considering charges against an Indigenous person or an accused person with an Indigenous victim.

It also specifically says that if the alleged crimes are against Indigenous women and girls, prosecutors should weigh that as a point in favour of a prosecution.

Need to monitor

UBC law professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former judge and B.C. representative for children and youth, called the changes meaningful.

"This is a big step forward for prosecution service to refresh these," Turpel-Lafond told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko. "There will be significant work to be done but I certainly applauded and welcomed this step today."

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, seen here in 2016, says the impacts of trauma are often seen in Indigenous offenders. (CBC)

She said the new guidelines could allow the justice system to more accurately and fairly assess the circumstances of the people involved in criminal proceedings and why they are before the court.

"People that have really experienced trauma come before the courts more often," she added.

Turpel-Lafond said it will be important to monitor the impact of those changes in the coming months and years to see if they reduce the number of Indigenous people incarcerated in B.C.

Listen to the full interview with Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond:

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast