With the federal election only days away, I had lofty aspirations of providing a concise overview of the parties' platforms with respect to the criminal justice system. However, the campaign has not touched on these issues very much, and it is only the Conservatives who have focused on safety and crime. In reading through the Conservative party's platform on "Safe Streets", the following paragraph caught my eye:
"Our Conservative Government is committed to keeping Canada's streets and communities safe for Canadians and their families. Since 2006, we've introduced and passed over 60 substantive pieces of legislation to help keep criminals behind bars, protect children, put the rights of victims ahead of criminals, and crack down on drugs, guns, and gangs. The result is that our streets are safer, our children are better protected, and victims are where they belong - at the center of our criminal justice system.(http://www.conservative.ca/plan/safe-streets/)
To take a step back, consider that when someone is facing a criminal charge, their case takes the name of R v. Accused. The "R" stands for Regina, or the Queen. That means that the case is not framed as a victim against the accused, but as the state against the accused. The Crown prosecuting the case does not represent the victim or complainant. The victim's participation is focused on giving evidence during a trial, or providing a victim impact statement in sentencing should the person be convicted. So how then are victims to be at the centre of our justice system when they aren't a party to the proceedings?
The Conservatives seem to suggest that the rights of victims should be equal to those of 'criminals' but there is no indication as to what rights they are referring to. A person who is facing a criminal charge, like any Canadian, has rights protected by the Charter to ensure that the process is fair. We all have rights to be free from unreasonable searches by the police. We have the right not be arbitrarily detained, meaning we cannot be arrested or detained unless the police have the proper grounds to do so. We have the right to be informed of a charge and contact a lawyer and to have a trial in a reasonable time. These rights stem from the charge itself and aren't applicable to a complainant.
I am certainly not suggesting that victims of crime don't deserve to be heard. People navigating the system should definitely have the supports necessarily to understand the process, and this often comes from either a Victim Witness Assistant Program (VWAP), the police or the Crown. However, to make a blanket statement that suggests that victims are at the centre of the system is essentially calling for an overhaul of the entire system.
The Conservatives have been big proponents of the 'Tough on Crime' agenda and this has been very successful for them politically. However, it doesn't mean that it actually makes sense in terms of policy. Being pro-Charter rights does not mean being anti-victim rights. It's important to remember that many people involved in the criminal justice system have been victims themselves, be if of crime, abuse, or addiction. The problem, just like when we name legislation 'Safe Streets Act' is that no one wants to advocate for unsafe streets. No one wants to be 'soft on crime' but the reality is that we need a government that respects and understands the courts and governs in accordance with the Charter. If that is starting point, then everyone in the system should get the protection and respect they deserve.