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Will Cutbacks in British Columbia Sheriffs Lead to Courtroom Chaos?

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Dateline USA: "Judge Breaks Up Courtroom Attack"; "Judge Severely Injured by Knife Attack in Courtroom"; "Man Charged With Attacking Wife in Court Over Child Support".

British Columbia's sheriffs, responsible for protecting B.C.'s 44 courthouses and thousands of British Columbians who have business in court, including judges, lawyers, court staff and litigants, say the government is playing "roulette" with courtroom safety.

Cutbacks in sheriff services continues unabated with the layoff of 34 more sheriffs this month and a growing concern that U.S.-style courtroom violence may be an unintended consequence.

The impact of the reduction in sheriff services is already apparent in courtrooms around the Province as judges in Kelowna, Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops halted serious criminal trials because of safety concerns.

The long-awaited Vancouver Supreme Court murder trial of five men referred to as the "Greeks", members of a gang from Vernon, who were charged with seven counts of murder, just began when the crisis hit. Their case proceeded, despite the absence of sheriffs at a control gate at the entrance of the courtroom, a checkpoint that is de rigueur in high-profile gang trials.

While the Greeks were arrested five years ago, their trial only began last month before it was shut down.

The delay of justice in this case is typical of a justice system that cannot cope with so-called "mega-trials," another sign of our crippled system of criminal law.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced yesterday that a bill meant to improve and streamline mega-trials had gained the support of both the New Democrats and the Liberals and would be the first crime bill of Harper's majority government to become law.

To those that say sheriffs and judges are pushing political buttons in their own self-interest, consider that during the trial of serial rapist/murder Robert (Willy) Pickton, believed to be responsible for the murders of 50 B.C. women, sheriffs at the New Westminster courthouse seized 2,000 prohibited items including, knives, drugs, and other weapons.

Despite the cuts our government continues to pile additional duties on B.C.'s sheriffs. In January of 2011 the government announced that sheriffs would now be responsible for the collection of DNA from convicted criminals, a task that was previously handled by the police.

In addition, the "Con Air" program, where police officers accompany criminals back to their home jurisdictions to face serious outstanding criminal charges, was also transferred to the sheriff services.

Recently the government expended $40,000 to train 14 sheriffs to replace police officers on traffic duty, despite British Columbia Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Beauman's concern that these additional obligations would add to the already unacceptable lapses in courtroom security. After expending precious resources the government abandoned the project.

Meanwhile B.C.'s Attorney General Barry Penner said there is no more money available and adjustments will have to be made such as replacing sheriffs dedicated to a particular courtroom to "roving" sheriffs, who will be "seconds away".

Yesterday this controversy caught the attention of Premier Christy Clark who advised the media she would be speaking with Barry Penner about a solution to keep the wheels of justice turning.

Law and order is at the foundation of a civilized society and British Columbia must ensure that adequate protection is maintained in our halls of justice or face the perils of courtroom chaos.

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