Tougher bail provisions needed to address knife-related violence, MB justice minister says

Manitoba’s Justice Minister, Kelvin Goertzen, wants to crack down on people accused of violent crimes involving knives.

“Manitoba has particular issues when it comes to knives and those being used in violent attacks and we’re concerned it’s almost impossible to not grant bail when somebody is accused of a violent crime with a knife,” Goertzen said in an interview Thursday.

He wrote David Lametti, the federal justice minister, to consider changes to the Criminal Code of Canada.

Goertzen said anyone accused of a violent crime with a knife who’s seeking bail should be treated the same way as people charged with an offence using a firearm.

“What we’re saying is it should be equivalent if you’re committing a crime with a gun, that it should be reverse bail onus,” Goertzen said. “You should have to prove why it is you should be able to get bail.”

Under most circumstances, the onus is on the Crown to show why bail should be denied.

Brandon Trask, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba and a former prosecutor outside Manitoba, feels it’s a worthwhile suggestion that would need to be further studied.

“If there’s an additional reverse onus clause in place it can send a message to judges,” Trask said.

But Trask said the Supreme Court of Canada has found reverse onus clauses like the one Goertzen’s proposing to be problematic unless they’re narrow enough in scope. He also said they don’t automatically mean someone will be denied bail and that people can still be held in custody before they’re found guilty if a judge rules they’re a flight risk, they’re a risk to reoffend, or if their detention is required to ensure public confidence in the administration of justice.

“At the end of the day the test, the ultimate test for bail, remains the same whether there’s a reverse onus or not,” Trask said.

Michael Weinrath, a criminal justice professor at the University of Winnipeg, thinks more data is needed. Weinrath said it would be helpful to know how many people accused of a violent, knife-related crime go on to commit another alleged offence while on bail.

“I’d like to see people trying to examine to see whether a trend exists,” Weinrath said. “Whether that is really a problem, whether the current system is doing everything that they can to identify high-risk situations.”

The Winnipeg Police Service’s 2021 annual statistical report shows crimes involving knives in Winnipeg actually decreased slightly last year — they were down 0.3 per cent compared to the five-year average and down 16 per cent compared to 2020. The report notes 18 per cent of knife crimes in 2021 couldn’t be solved because the victim refused to participate in the investigation.

It doesn’t specify how many people charged with violent crimes involving knives reoffended while on bail.

Chris Gamby, a lawyer and spokesperson for The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, sees Goertzen’s suggestion as unnecessary and reactionary.

“Maybe someone’s already been injured by that,” Gamby said. “So in that way my first thought is maybe we need to be doing more to address some of the causes and reasons why people would begin to commit a violent crime at the outset.”

He said judges already have a number of tools to deny bail.

“The Crown’s office are very aware of that and they’re adept at making arguments,” Gamby said. “So, for example, if you had somebody who had priors with committing offences with a knife, prior aggravated assaults convictions – that is exactly the type of thing that they would point to in an application to have that person denied bail.”

Goertzen said the government is also working to address the root causes of crime by providing support to community organizations, such as the Bear Clan to support street patrols.

“But there does come a point where individuals have proven themselves to be a danger to the community and one has to ask themselves the question, why are they back into the community.” Goertzen said.

Goertzen said he’s heard concerns about people charged with knife-related crimes reoffending while on bail from police, prosecutors and members of the public.

He said he’ll also be putting forward other proposals on changes to the Criminal Code aimed at dealing with crime in Manitoba.

CTV News Winnipeg has reached out to federal Justice Minister Lametti’s office for comment. 

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