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British Columbians are deeply dissatisfied with justice system

In 2009, as the provincial campaign was about to get under way, British Columbians were bombarded with stories that pointed to an increase in criminal activity. At least 20 people had died in heavily reported incidents of gang violence in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, and crime and public safety surpassed health care to become the second most important issue for residents – after the economy – with just a few weeks to go before the election.

At the time, premier Gordon Campbell sounded reassuring but non-committal, promising more police to "come after" gangs that were "not acceptable in our neighbourhoods." The B.C. NDP focused its criticism on budget cuts, particularly to youth and court services. The strategy did not work for NDP Leader Carole James. A week before earning his third majority mandate, Mr. Campbell maintained a 15-point lead over Ms. James as the best leader to deal with crime.

Four years later, the B.C. Liberals have lost their traditional edge on this particular topic. As the campaign begins, NDP Leader Adrian Dix is five points ahead of Premier Christy Clark (21 per cent to 16 per cent), with B.C. Conservative Leader John Cummins getting his best numbers on any issue (15 per cent).

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The drop in confidence for the B.C. Liberals on law and order began immediately after the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riot, when a promise by Ms. Clark that rioters would not be able to "live in anonymity" contrasted with the severe setbacks of the justice system. Our surveys showed that British Columbians and Vancouverites did not believe that every rioter would actually face justice, expecting only about a third of those who destroyed property and looted businesses to be placed in front of a judge.

This week, Angus Reid Public Opinion once again polled British Columbians about the justice system. The survey measured perceptions on five broad themes: resources, fairness, determining guilt, sentencing and rehabilitation of prisoners. Only one of these elements is rated positively by a majority of British Columbians. Across the province, 51 per cent of respondents believe that criminal courts do a good job in determining whether or not an accused person is guilty.

The results are unflattering for the other elements tested. Only one third of respondents (32 per cent) believe the justice system treats every person fairly, and just over a quarter (27 per cent) say judges do a good job handing out punishments and sentences to people who commit crimes. These numbers indicate most British Columbians are rejecting the notion of "blind justice," and also outline a high level of dissatisfaction with some of the decisions made by judges.

On the topics of resources and rehabilitation, British Columbia's numbers are paltry. Only one in five respondents (21 per cent) thinks the justice system has enough resources to efficiently process cases, and only 14 per cent believe the prison system does a good job in helping prisoners become law abiding.

The poll also shows a continuing low level of confidence in the internal operations and leadership of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). This trend began immediately after the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport in October, 2007, and has not changed drastically since then. Only 27 per cent of British Columbians express "complete confidence" or "a lot of confidence" in the force, with respondents who say they will vote for the B.C. NDP on May 14 being more critical than B.C. Liberal supporters.

The Dziekanski incident did lead to one of the most recognizable successes of Ms. Clark's tenure: the creation of an Independent Investigations Office to look into incidents of serious injury or death involving law-enforcement officers. The Liberal platform includes a vow to work with police departments in urban areas to determine the viability of a regional policing system. Metro Vancouverites are clearly on board, with 61 per cent saying they would support the creation of a single police force for the entire Lower Mainland.

The governing party has also promised to work to expand assistance for criminal and family law cases, and free up court time by removing some traffic violations from the provincial court system. It remains to be seen what the B.C. NDP has in store on the law and order file as the campaign progresses. A critique of budget cuts did not work for Ms. James four years ago, and voters will undoubtedly be looking for something more from Mr. Dix.

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