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Poilievre’s ‘jail, not bail’ idea may not pass constitutional muster, experts say

Conservative leader says newly arrested repeat violent offenders, should serve entire period in jail
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre said this week that if he became prime minister, his government would pass legislation to deny repeat violent offenders access to bail — and while the proposal speaks to Canadians’ deepening concerns about crime, experts suggest it would likely be unconstitutional.

“A repeat violent offender, newly arrested for another serious violent offence, will have to serve their entire period in jail,” Poilievre told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday.

“Not bail, and not early parole. That’s common sense.”

The Opposition leader’s comments came in response to the federal government announcing its own plans to reform Canada’s bail laws by bringing in measures making it more difficult for some repeat violent offenders to get released on bail.

The Liberals introduced the proposed changes in response to mounting pressure from provinces, police associations and victims’ rights groups to strengthen the system amid a spate of high-profile crimes.

Poilievre said the measures don’t go nearly far enough to improve public safety. But experts reacted to his alternate proposal with skepticism.

Boris Bytensky, a criminal defence lawyer, said legislation that would deny some accused people access to bail hearings would not pass constitutional muster.

The approach doesn’t account for the possibility of innocence, he said.

“Somewhere in there, there should be room for a person to be found not guilty. Because presumably, we don’t actually sentence people until and unless they’ve been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.

“But that doesn’t seem to be included in the narrative.”

Bytensky said Poilievre seems to be suggesting that the existence of a prior record means people should be presumed guilty and sentenced as soon as possible so that they can remain behind bars.

“That’s what he’s essentially saying that his government is pledging to do, if he’s elected, so I’m a little surprised by that.”

Danardo Jones, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor’s law school, said that from a constitutional legal perspective, the promise does not make “a tremendous amount of sense.”

“I’m not really sure what society these folks are imagining, if it’s a society where there is no risk, or a society where there is no crime,” he said.

“I would love to live in a society like that, but I don’t know if draconian criminal measures are going to usher in a society like that.”

About 70 per cent of people who are already in Canadian detention facilities are there because they were denied bail, Jones said.

“Then we’re going to see an even higher representation in our provincial detention facility of folks who have not been criminally convicted of the offence for which they’ve been charged,” he said.

Nicole Myers, a Queen’s University sociologist who has an expertise in bail and pretrial detention, said the idea “completely ignores the foundational principles of our criminal justice system” and the fact that the right to be released on reasonable bail is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s a right has been repeatedly affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Poilievre’s pitch seems to be more about politics, Myers said.

“He’s trying to grab onto and exploit public fear and public concern.”

The slogan Poilievre is using to promote the idea that certain offenders’ rights to bail hearings should be waived — “Jail, not bail” — is “misguided,” said Myers.

“We do not have a lenient bail system in this country. We’ve had more people in pretrial detention than in sentence provincial custody since 2004,” she said.

Moreover, she said spending time in prison makes people more likely to commit an offence after they are released.

And if people who are ultimately convicted spend more time in prison waiting for a trial, then time will be shaved off the end of their sentences after they are convicted, Myers added.

“If he were actually interested in public safety, as he says he apparently is, then we would not be trying to put more people in jail.”

—David Fraser, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: New Liberal law would make it harder for some repeat violent offenders to get bail