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Global News Investigates: Almost half of Edmonton criminal cases ultimately withdrawn

Global News with Tamara O’Doherty 30 September 2019

 

Nearly 50 per cent of cases where Edmonton police lay charges are ultimately withdrawn by Crown prosecutors.

Data obtained by Global News from Alberta Justice shows that all charges in 47 per cent of cases were withdrawn last fiscal year, and that number has been steadily rising since the 2015-2016 fiscal year. The trend is raising renewed concerns about the shortage of Crown prosecutors in the province.

Dr. Tamara O’Doherty, a lecturer at the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, said prosecutors in Alberta are overworked and overburdened.

“No one in Crown counsel offices are actually trying to delay or trying to get rid of files,” she said.

“But when they’re looking at these files, they have to look realistically at both the reasonable likelihood of conviction based on the evidence itself and then they also have to look at whether or not it’s in the public’s interest to proceed.”

The latest numbers from Statistics Canada show the provincial average of cases withdrawn was 39 per cent in 2016/17. The national average was 32 per cent for the same time period.

“We’ve asked [Crown prosecutors] to take on an essentially really difficult task and these are the consequences when we don’t plan something appropriately,” O’Doherty said.
 
According to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service (ACPS), over the last three years in Edmonton, approximately 94 per cent of the matters withdrawn were for administration of justice charges, such as failing to appear in court, and matters not classified as serious and violent.
 
Eric Tolppanen, head of the ACPS, said prosecutors do not commence matters unless there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction and that courts require a case be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
 
“These checks and balances mean that it is possible for one standard to be met, but for the case not to proceed at the next more onerous standard,” he said in a statement.
 
Tolppanen also cited factors such as new evidence or witnesses failing to attend court to testify to explain why cases may be withdrawn.
 

Frustrating for police

Michael Elliott, president of the Edmonton Police Association, also attributes the reason for the increase to “overwhelmed” prosecutors and said the numbers are cause for concern.

The number of cases in Edmonton where charges are laid has been increasing, according to the data from Alberta Justice.

“It is true we’re taking on more files, which in turn will equate to more charges, which in turn will increase the workload the Crowns have,” Elliott said.

Elliott said officers work hard on their files and sometimes get attached to them.

“It’s frustrating for the members to know that cases are being dropped. In addition to that, it’s also frustrating for the victims,” he said.

A transition binder for Police Chief Dale McFee, obtained by Global News through a Freedom of Information request, states that Crown prosecutors currently do not proactively provide feedback to officers about why a matter is withdrawn.

“Receiving feedback is absolutely necessary in order to improve the product we put forward and in order to properly allocate scarce police resources,” the transition binder reads.

“If we’re dealing with the limited amount of Crown resources and we’re asking them to triage cases, chances are one of the things that maybe has been pushed to a lower priority level is communication and feedback back to police,” O’Doherty said.

The issue of withdrawn cases was among the ones McFee was briefed on after taking over from former chief Rod Knecht. Global News asked chief McFee for an interview but he declined.

Heavy workload

The Edmonton numbers are the biggest increase seen in the province. In Calgary, the total number of cases withdrawn rose from 31 per cent in the 2015/16 fiscal year to 38 per cent in the 2018/19 fiscal year; in Lethbridge, the number of cases withdrawn has stayed relatively flat at 24 per cent since 2015/16.

Numbers from the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association show that Alberta prosecutors deal with more people charged than any other prosecutors in the country, except for Saskatchewan.

In Alberta, there are 309 accused for everyone one prosecutor; there are 193 accused for every Ontario prosecutor and 121 accused for every B.C. prosecutor.

O’Doherty said the situation in Edmonton will require a financial commitment to be corrected.

“This money comes from somewhere. So we need to be figuring out what is the best way to move this issue forward because it is not new and is not going anywhere,” she said.

“This whole issue really should cause all of us some concern and require us to ask our leaders, ‘What are they going to be doing about this?’”

Situation affecting morale

Damian Rogers, president-elect of the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, said Albertans should know prosecutors are focusing on files that are of the greatest concern to residents.

Rogers said prosecutors take public interest into consideration when deciding how to proceed on a case, and resources may take a role in deciding not to prosecute.

“There have been stays of offences like impaired operation of a vehicle. There have been stays of assault, of mischief and thefts.

“All of those are crimes that, if you were the victim of it or you were put at risk by it, you would like to see that person prosecuted.

“Our prosecutors would like to pursue those files as well and sometimes we can’t because we don’t have enough people,” he said.

Rogers said the workload in Edmonton is increasing faster than prosecutors can keep up with.

He said, within the last seven years, the volume of cases in Edmonton has jumped approximately 60 per cent but the number of prosecutors has only risen by roughly 13 per cent.

“There’s just less time that every prosecutor has to work on files. We have to focus our attention on the most serious files,” he said.

Rogers said more resources would mean prosecutors would not have to make as many decisions on how to proceed with cases in order to save office and court resources.

“In Edmonton prosecutions, where I work, it’s not unusual to have emails flying around the office saying we don’t have a prosecutor for a trial in one week, we don’t have a prosecutor to go to docket court tomorrow and that continual sense that we’re barely keeping up is a big impact on people’s morale,” he said.

The UCP had promised to hire more prosecutors but Rogers said he still has concerns.

“This government has made it clear that they intend to hire net new positions of prosecutors. But that still isn’t happening. We’re still filling vacancies that existed under hiring restraint in the past. We don’t yet have an indication of how long it will take the province to hire the prosecutors that they said they would hire,” Rogers said.

“It may be a year or two until the system really feels the impact of the announced hiring.”

Response from the province

Global News received a statement after requesting a response from Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer for this story.

It reiterates a UCP campaign promise to spent $10 million to hire 50 new prosecutors and support staff.

When sharing the story on social media, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said the reason almost half of Edmonton criminal cases are withdrawn is “because the NDP starved our province of needed prosecutors.”

NDP justice critic and former justice minister Kathleen Ganley fired back, suggesting his party voted against hiring additional prosecutors when the NDP was in government.

“Conservatives voted against these 50 prosecutors in 2017, plus 20 more in 2018. I agree we need more – which is why we were adding more – but as I understand, you haven’t hired to a single new position yet Minister,” Ganley tweeted.

NDP leader Rachel Notley also weighed in on the discussion.

“Let’s also keep in mind that the UCP is proposing up to 70 per cent cuts to police funding for rural municipalities and voted against our Rural Crime Plan that put more boots on the ground and hired more prosecutors,” she tweeted.

The province hasn’t yet decided where the prosecutors will be located; those details will be finalized after the budget on Oct. 24.

Tamara O’Doherty is a criminology lecturer at Simon Fraser University.