'Utter nonsense' that lenient bail system is a cause of Toronto shootings: lawyer

Claims by Toronto's police chief and mayor that a too lenient bail system for those accused of gun-related offences is one of the causes for the rash of shootings in the city "is complete and utter nonsense," the head of the Canadian Lawyers Association says.

326 people charged with gun-related offences are out on bail, police chief says

During a news conference Friday, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said about 326 people charged with firearms offences are out on bail. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Claims by Toronto's police chief and mayor that a too-lenient bail system for people accused of gun-related offences is one of the causes for the rash of shootings in the city "is complete and utter nonsense," the head of the Criminal Lawyers' Association says.

Other Toronto-based criminal defence lawyers contacted by CBC News were also critical of the remarks made by Chief Mark Saunders and Mayor John Tory, saying there's just no evidence that gun violence occurring in the city is a result of people out on bail on gun-related charges.

"Anecdotal claims that people are being released willy-nilly without consideration of the public safety or that justices and the judicial system [are] failing the community is complete and utter nonsense," said criminal defence lawyer Michael Lacy, president of the CLA.

"This is a not-so-subtle way, both on the part of the mayor and the chief, of trying to improperly influence judicial independence. And frankly it's entirely inappropriate."

During a news conference called on Friday to talk about the rash of recent shootings in Toronto,  Saunders said approximately 326 people who have been charged with firearms offences are out on bail.

One person is dead and another is injured after a shooting in East York Friday, just after Saunders told reporters a recent spate of shootings has 'gang connotations.' (Grant Linton/CBC)

"What we are hoping to do is establish a stronger relationship with our courts to let them know the impact that these types of offences are having within our communities," Saunders said. 

"We need that deterrent factor because a lot of people are in possession of firearms right now," he said.

Tory, in a statement, added that "repeat gun offenders simply shouldn't be out on bail. We have seen what happens when they are."

"We should make whatever changes to the law that are required to give judges the tools they need to address this problem," Tory said.

The rash of recent shootings in Canada's largest city includes a violent Simcoe Day long weekend that left 17 people with gunshot injuries from 14 separate shootings. According to police statistics, Toronto is on pace to set an annual record for the number of shooting incidents and victims.

    Lacy said people who already have a record for serious gun violence or crimes involving firearms are less likely, under the current law, to be released on bail because that's a factor judges take into account.

    And Saunders's statement about the number of people charged with gun offences who are out on bail says nothing about the circumstances or strength of those cases, Lacy said.

    It's unclear how many people who are charged with gun-related crimes and are out on bail go on to be charged again with such crimes. Lacy said he isn't aware of any statistics, and Saunders didn't elaborate in his news conference. 

    But the police chief did remark that in a recent double shooting in the city, one of the victims had been released on bail for firearm charges and the other had been released from jail on firearms charges.

    Toronto Mayor John Tory said in statement that 'repeat gun offenders simply shouldn't be out on bail.' (John Rieti/CBC)

    A spokesperson for Tory would only say the mayor's comments were based on conversations he's had with the police chief. And the website for the Office of the Federal Ombudsman For Victims of Crime said research on the number and type of offences committed on bail "appears to be relatively scarce."

    There are always 'outliers'

    However, Lacy  acknowledged there are always "outliers," where people out on bail on serious charges may commit other serious offences. 

    "That's because we have an imperfect system," he said. "But there's not a systemic failure here on the part of the courts."

    Meanwhile, Toronto-based criminal lawyer Daniel Brown said it's not as if the courts are simply releasing people to the streets completely unsupervised.

    People accused of serious crimes like gun violence are released often where there's strong evidence that the case against them is weak, he said.

    One person was injured after a shooting at an outdoor basketball court in east Toronto early Friday. It was the neighbourhood's third shooting of the week. (Jeremy Cohn/CBC)

    Those on bail for gun-related offences are under strict supervision, often around the clock, and many are forced to wear an ankle bracelet monitor, or are under house arrest.

    "So this suggestion that they're simply out and about committing crimes is just completely false, and there's absolutely no evidence to suggest that the gun violence right now is caused by offenders who are already before the courts on other criminal allegations," Brown said.

    'Almost impossible to get bail'

    David Bayliss, a Toronto-based criminal lawyer, said that in his experience, for someone who has a previous firearm conviction, "it's almost impossible to get bail if you're charged again."

    "People who are released on gun offences, in my experience, do not reoffend while they're on bail. So that specific point is just not factually accurate."

    Criminal lawyer Knia Singh said taking away bail is not the answer.

    "We have to respect the rule of law. We have to respect evidence," Singh said.

    He gave the example of criminal charges after a gun is found in a home. The entire family can be charged, he said, and the situation is similar when a gun is found in a car.

    "If we revert from that presumption of innocence, then we are no better than these countries we criticize for human rights violations," Singh said.