The revelation that the suspect in the fatal Eaton Centre shooting in downtown Toronto was out on bail has renewed questions about the effectiveness of the system within the province.
As the result of a previous sexual assault charge in 2010, the 23-year-old suspect, Christopher Husbands, had been under house arrest as one of the conditions of his bail at the time of the shooting.
Husbands is one of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people out on bail at any given time in the province. But exact figures are unknown as the Ontario Attorney General's Office does not keep statistics on the number of people out on bail or the number of people out on bail who go on to commit crimes.
In Toronto, for example, some accused out on bail are checked by officers in each police division who have been assigned to be bail compliance officers. But not everyone on bail can be monitored.
"[Officers will] go through who is ever on bail conditions in their division, assess the threat, they will target more violent offenders, knock on their door, see if they’re complying with their conditions,” said Kevin Masterman, a spokesman with the Toronto Police Service. “If they aren’t, they make those arrests.”
Masterman said that for the 19,313 bail compliance checks police made in 2011, just three per cent,— 622 — led to compliance-related arrests.
According to the attorney general website, the Crown policy manual states that the Crown should seek detention "where either the circumstances of the accused or the allegations raise serious concerns about risk of harm to the public or to specific people in the event that the accused is released."
"Crown counsel should not consent to the release of an accused where there are serious safety concerns unless the Crown is satisfied that terms of release address those concerns," it adds.
If someone is released on bail, a surety is then given the responsibility to ensure the accused meets all the bail conditions. The surety must also sign a recognizance, which means if the accused does not follow conditions, the surety is liable for the amount they posted.
But Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, who as Opposition leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives was a vocal critic of the bail system, said there's no effort to collect the surety when the conditions are breached.
"There's little or any effort to collect on these promissory notes," he said.
Runciman also said that Crowns should be fighting harder against the release of some accused.
"I think the Crowns should take it upon themselves to make sure that they fight a judicial decision — that could endanger the public — to the max. And that isn’t always the case. And we’ve had too many situations where I think the Crown hasn’t been as vigorous as they can be or should be."
Kingston police Chief Stephen Tanner, who is also vice-president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said their association recognizes the issue of bail is a "complicated one."
“When it works, nobody notices, and when situations go bad, then everybody questions, why was that situation the way it was.
“If you have a case where someone’s been taken into custody for a violent crime and then at some point, they are released on whatever conditions, and then further victimization occurs, I think we all, in the justice system, have to look at how did this happen. And often we are proponents for stronger conditions of release and to put more conditions on people.”
Tanner said he supports better ways to monitor those on bail, such as using GPS bracelets.
However, Tanner said that, in general, he believes the justice system does a good job of keeping potential violent offenders who have been charged off the street, if information is known about their background.
"If we have a history of violence, for example, on a violent crime and … we can show a reasonable argument that they’re going to reoffend, or someone’s going to be at risk. I think our justice system is pretty good at keeping people in custody when they should be.”
But Tanner said it becomes complicated if someone, for example, is arrested and released on bail on a drug charge, but there’s no full understanding or evidence presented of that person’s violent side or their involvement in other types of more violent crime.
“In fairness, the judges can only decide based on what they know, or what the police know and what they are able to tell them.”
Norman Boxall, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, said he wouldn’t comment on the Husbands case, but that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the bail system over isolated incidents.
“Bad facts make bad law,” Boxall said. “Presuming someone who is out on bail and is later shown to have committed an offence, it may create a reaction that there's a problem with the bail system. However, isolated cases are not very helpful.
“One would hope they would not try and look at an isolated case and say, 'This means there’s a problem with the bail system.' There are problems with the bail system. It’s not that too many people are released, it’s that too few are released.”
Boxall said Ontario has an extremely high rate of incarceration for persons awaiting trial. According to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, 5,342 people were remanded in custody as of June 7.
The system is too slow in terms of getting people to a bail hearing, which is supposed to occur within 24 hours of arrest but can instead stretch from days to weeks, Boxall said.
Also, many of those people could be released but have limited financial means or are dealing with mental health or addiction issues and don’t have the community support they need, he said.
Boxall added that under the Constitution, people have the right to reasonable bail because we presume people innocent. He said that doesn’t mean everyone should be granted bail, but unless it can be shown they won't come to court or will commit other crimes, they should be released.
"To detain people in jail before the trial is to put the cart before the horse. You are punishing them and there’s absolutely no remedy, if the person is later found not guilty or the charges are withdrawn, there's no way we can give them their liberty back."