Yukon, N.W.T. at bottom of justice system report card, Nunavut fares better

High crime rates, high costs and limited access to legal aid have put Yukon and the N.W.T. at the bottom of a list ranking criminal justice systems across Canada.

High rates of violent crime, high costs of justice system mean poor marks for territories

The Yukon court house in Whitehorse. Yukon and the N.W.T. received poor marks on a new justice system report card from the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. Yukon ranked 13th out of Canada's 13 provinces and territories, while the N.W.T. ranked 12th and Nunavut ranked 8th. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

High crime rates, high costs and limited access to legal aid have put Yukon and the N.W.T. at the bottom of a list ranking criminal justice systems in the provinces and territories. 

The MacDonald-Laurier Institute on Monday issued its second report on criminal justice in Canada. It's based on Statistics Canada data on crime and the legal system.

The think tank's first such report came out in 2016, and since then N.W.T. has dropped from 11th to 12th in the rankings of Canada's 13 provinces and territories. In both reports, Yukon is at the bottom of the list.

Nunavut, meanwhile, has improved since 2016 — going from 10th in the rankings to eighth this year.

"It's a pretty remarkable jump," said Benjamin Perrin, a University of British Columbia law professor and one of the new report's co-authors. "Nunavut has actually pulled ahead of a number of provinces [that have] significant resources ... to tackle their crime rate."

The rankings are based on data from Statistics Canada, and focus on public safety, support for victims, costs and resource use, fairness and access to justice, and efficiency. (MacDonald-Laurier Institute)

Yukon, meanwhile, has made little progress.

"It's really unfortunate," Perrin said. "There are major concerns and major problems with the justice system in the Yukon."

Yukon crime 'off the charts'

Yukon scored poorest when it came to the cost and use of resources by its justice system. Part of that is attributable to the territory's geographic size and its sparse population and, in part, to its relatively high rates of violent and property crime.

"There are just astronomically higher rates of all types of crime," Perrin said. "They're actually off the charts — we had to limit how much of an effect that would have on the grade, because it was so disproportionate."

'There are major concerns and major problems with the justice system in the Yukon,' said Benjamin Perrin, a University of British Columbia law professor and one of the report card's co-authors.

Yukon also has high rates of probation breaches, failure to comply with court orders and relatively high numbers of accused persons on remand.

At the same time, Yukon spends relatively little on legal aid, compared to other jurisdictions. Perrin argues that legal aid can make the justice system more fair, efficient and less expensive. 

"If governments are trying to save money by cutting legal aid, they actually end up paying probably much more in the end," he said. 

On the plus side, the report found that Yukon has relatively few unsolved crimes and the median length for criminal cases is lower than average.

Victim support poor in N.W.T.

The N.W.T. received failing marks for the cost and use of resources by its justice system and its support for victims. The report says victims receive one of the lowest proportion of restitution orders in Canada.

The N.W.T., like the other territories, has high rates of crime. It has the second-highest rate of violent crime (after Nunavut) and the highest rate of property crime (although, that's declined since 2016).

Like Yukon, the N.W.T. also has relatively high rates of breach of probation and failure to comply with court orders. The territory also spends little on legal aid, compared to other jurisdictions.

The N.W.T. also sees a relatively high proportion of criminal charges stayed or withdrawn. According to Perrin, that can reduce the system's efficiency.

"The Northwest Territories is charging more people than they probably need to be," he said.

The N.W.T. has a high rate of solved crimes, but also sees a relatively high number of criminal charges stayed or withdrawn. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

At the same time, though, the N.W.T. has the second-highest rate of solved crimes. The other territories also did well on that score. 

"So, while the crime rates up North are just dramatically higher than in the rest of Canada, the police up North are doing quite a good job at ... solving crime up there," Perrin said.

Nunavut scores high for access to justice 

Nunavut has made marked improvements since the 2016 report, Perrin said, despite it continuing to have some of the highest crime rates in the country. 

He says Nunavut has seen a decline in federal statute violations, such as drug crimes. There are also fewer accused offenders failing to appear in court, the lowest rate of accused persons at large and more support for victims.

The jury box at the Nunavut Court of Justice. According to Perrin, Nunavut has the highest criminal legal aid expenditures than anywhere in Canada. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Perrin says Nunavut scored high for fairness and access to justice, as it spends more on legal aid, per crime, than any other jurisdiction. Those expenditures have been steadily increasing in recent years, he says.

"What Nunavut has seen, is by investing in legal aid, they're actually having some positive potential impacts in addition to making the system fairer," Perrin said.

Learning from each other

Perrin said even though the three Northern territories are all in the bottom half of the rankings, they can learn from each other. For example, Nunavut's investments in legal aid might inspire the other jurisdictions to review the issue.

"I think it would be a real benefit to having, at the territorial level, some ongoing discussions on improving the criminal justice system up north," he said.

Perrin also hopes the territorial governments take his group's report to heart. He says it's based on Statistics Canada data provided by police and courts and it's all been adjusted for population differences, "so we're able to compare apples to apples."

He says after the last report came out in 2016, the previous Yukon government chose to "nitpick and criticize the methodology of the report, rather than trying to learn from it and taking real steps for reform."

He hopes that doesn't happen again.

"I'm a professor. Students come in after an exam and I see one of two things  — one is, students want to fight over a mark, and the others want to learn and improve."

Perrin would also like to see Statistics Canada begin to collect data on public confidence in the police and the justice systems in the territories. That data is factored into the provinces' rankings on the report card, but is not available for the territories. 

With files from Leonard Linklater

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