Criminal justice reforms may cut down Indigenous overrepresentation, lawyer says

Reforms proposed by the Liberal government could succeed in reducing the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, a Toronto lawyer says.

Around 25% of Canada's inmates are Indigenous, according to the Department of Justice

Lawyer Promise Holmes Skinner says the proposed bail reforms could have the greatest effect on Indigenous overrepresentation. (CBC)

Reforms proposed by the Liberal government could succeed in reducing the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, a Toronto lawyer says.

The changes include new bail rules, the elimination of most preliminary inquiries and would end a lawyer's ability to dismiss jurors without justification.

"There are some things in the bill that will help to minimize overrepresentation," said Promise Holmes Skinner, a senior manager with Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto.

The 300-page bill includes a host of proposals designed to improve efficiency and reduce delays at Canadian courts. Holmes Skinner says a few of the reforms may have a greater impact on Indigenous overrepresentation than others. This includes reforms on bail condition and jury selection. 

According to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Indigenous people accounted for 25 per cent of all inmates in Canada, yet just 4.3 per cent of the population, in 2016.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould unveiled the 300-page legislation Thursday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Bail reforms

The bill includes a proposal to streamline the bail process by giving judges and police more power to set conditions, rather than automatically jailing some accused offenders.

Holmes Skinner explains those changes may help address ongoing concerns around "fail to comply" issues, in which people can face additional charges after breaching certain conditions of their bail.

In most cases, she says those compliance violations do not amount to actual crimes, such as drinking alcohol or failing to keep the peace.

"People are being convicted of doing activities that are not illegal … because they're already wrapped up in the system and they live in poverty and they have a lack of resources," Holmes Skinner told CBC Toronto.

She added that an improved and more flexible bail process "will minimize the number of people in custody who are factually innocent."

Juror dismissal changes

The bill also calls for an end to peremptory challenges in jury selection, which currently allows lawyers to excuse certain potential jurors without the need to provide justification.

Some justice advocates say that practice was used to stack the deck in favour of Gerald Stanley during his recent murder trial in the death of Colten Boushie.

Stanley was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the killing of Boushie, a 22-year-old Indigenous man.

Critics say the trial was biased because Stanley's lawyers excused five potential jurors who appeared to be Indigenous.

Indigenous justice advocates say peremptory challenges contributed to a biased jury in the Colten Boushie trial. Boushie is pictured here in an undated photo. (The Canadian Press)

Holmes Skinner called the practice a "tragic issue" and said Indigenous advocacy groups have been calling for the banning of peremptory challenges for decades.

"We are happy to see this," she said. "It's not the answer but it is vital."

Bill C-75 still needs parliamentary approval, but Wilson-Raybould explains the country will benefit if it is eventually passed.

"This bill … makes substantive changes that are going to transform the justice system in terms of efficiencies, in terms of recognizing vulnerable individuals and Indigenous peoples and the impacts the system has on them," she said at a Thursday news conference on Parliament Hill.