Reforms aim to reduce over representation of Black, Indigenous people in jail

OTTAWA — The federal government is expected to introduce today long-awaited reforms aimed at reducing the over-representation of Black, racialized and Indigenous people in Canada’s criminal justice system.

Legislation to be introduced by Justice Minister David Lametti will likely address two long-standing items on the minister’s plate: reforming or scrapping mandatory minimum sentences and new measures to divert people charged with relatively minor offences out of the criminal justice system.

Lametti has given notice of the bill, entitled “An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.”

It is expected to reflect priorities spelled out Lametti’s mandate letters.

His first mandate letter after the Liberals won re-election in 2019 reiterated the party’s campaign pledge to “make drug treatment courts the default option for first-time non-violent offenders charged exclusively with simple possession to help drug users get quick access to treatment and to prevent more serious crimes.”

His updated mandate letter last January further instructed Lametti to “address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system, including (measures) to promote enhanced use of pre- and post-charge diversion and to better enable courts to impose sentences appropriate to the circumstances of individual cases.”

That suggests the government intends to give judges more discretion in sentencing, rather than the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by Stephen Harper’s previous Conservative government as part of its tough-on-crime agenda.

Mandatory minimums have been widely criticized for exacerbating the disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people who wind up jail.

Lametti’s predecessor in the justice portfolio, Jody Wilson-Raybould was charged with reviewing mandatory minimum sentences but nothing ever came of it and the government has been facing mounting pressure to act.

Last June, the multi-party parliamentary Black caucus issued a call to action that, among other things, demanded the elimination of mandatory minimums. Lametti was among the signatories.

On Wednesday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller reiterated the need to review mandatory minimum sentences, noting that incarceration rates for racialized and Indigenous people are five to six times the national average.

“These are things that we need to attack in sort of we say as a holistic approach that includes most importantly a review of mandatory minimums which in some cases have been held by the courts to be unconstitutional,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ruled out decriminalizing simple possession of illicit drugs but his government has been moving gradually in the direction of treating drug addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue.

Making drug treatment courts the default option for first-time simple possession offences would be another step in that direction.

Consistent with the Liberals’ approach, the director of public prosecutions last summer issued new guidelines instructing federal prosecutors to criminally prosecute only the most serious drug possession offences and to find alternatives outside the criminal justice system for the rest.

Alternatives include drug or addiction treatment programs and Indigenous restorative justice programs.

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