The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is a champion for civil rights in all areas of Canadian life. Criminal justice is one of its focus areas. The organization has been very active in mounting court challenges around some of the most troubling features of the criminal justice system. Among the areas it identifies on its website are policing power and police accountability, bail and remand, prison conditions and police record checks. CCLA has been one of the leaders in recent court cases that have ruled against excessive use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.
The Executive Director of CCLA is Michael Bryant. Mr Bryant was a Liberal MPP in Ontario for about ten years, from 1999 to 2009. He is a lawyer and served as Minister of Justice and Attorney General in the first Dalton McGuinty government, from 2003 to 2007.
In 2009, after he had left the government, while driving in Toronto, Bryant was involved in an incident that led to a death. He was charged by police but these charges were eventually dropped. However this experience had a huge influence on how he thought about criminal law, as recorded in his 2012 book, 28 Seconds.
Facing criminal charges
Bryant had the unusual experience of being charged almost immediately, before most of the relevant facts were known, even though in most traffic cases if criminal charges are laid at all, it is only after some period of investigation. He was held in jail overnight instead of being released on his own recognizance. As a high profile public figure, he experienced a media onslaught in which the presumption of innocence was largely absent. He concluded that the police were more interested in publicity and a conviction than they were in figuring out what actually happened. “For those charged with a criminal offence, the police and some prosecutors appear to be conviction machines.”
He was told by his lawyer that things he really wanted to do, such as talking about the events with his wife, or seeking counseling for himself, could hurt his legal defense. The cost of paying a skilled lawyer was beyond his means. He experienced the very serious consequences of a criminal charge on his family and friends, including worrying about the effects on his children at school.
In recounting all of this, Bryant is well aware that he was in a much more fortunate position than are most people accused of a crime. He was well educated, understood how the system worked, knew his legal rights, had a supportive family and a huge social network including many friends who could be helpful to him. Yet even with these advantages, the experience was a searing one. At several points in the book he talks about the difference between the justice system as it theoretically exists and the reality as experienced by most people. No doubt this experience has shaped his approach at CCLA, and been part of the reason that organization has been so active in supporting civil rights for those in the justice system.
Towards the end of the book Bryant makes some recommendations. One of these is to give much more attention to alcoholism and other substance abuse issues as a major cause of crime. He cites data from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health that direct health-care costs of alcohol abuse exceed those for cancer – and that doesn’t include the costs of related crime. “The criminal justice system is blind to addictions, even though that’s what drives most crime”, he writes. He supports the use of drug courts and of better services for those in custody, but even more, better preventive efforts so that fewer people end up in court in the first place.
The cost of legal defense was the subject of another recent post here. Bryant proposes an insurance scheme for legal assistance that would allow people to be able to afford a good lawyer when or if they needed one.
He suggests that criminal charges should be laid by crown attorneys, not by police – which is already the case in most of Canada, and is one reason that Ontario has such a high rate of dropped charges compared to other provinces. The result is huge costs to many people who are not guilty. “Their liberty is suspended, reputation ruined, and fiscal resources spent.” There are also major unneeded public costs for police, prosecution, and, often jailing of people who are never tried.
In sharing his story, Michael Bryant assists public understanding of the many ways the criminal justice system falls short of our ideals. Fortunately, that experience has also put him in a position to champion important improvements to the system.