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Ontario takes welcome steps to unclog its court system

The Ontario government's announcement that it will take concrete steps to speed up its court system, and to reform its bail system, is a bit of good news at the end of a bad year.

2016 will be remembered as the year the public learned that a young indigenous man, Adam Capay, had spent more than four years in an airless and constantly lit solitary confinement cell awaiting trial on a murder charge. And that another indigenous man, Christopher Coaster, died in the same Thunder Bay prison cell in 2008 after being confined to it while suffering from extreme withdrawal symptoms related to his alcoholism.

While both of these outrages speak to the ongoing abuse of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons, something that Ontario is also taking steps to reform, there were underlying circumstances that led to them. It's these issues that the government addressed in Thursday's announcement.

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In order to better ensure that accused persons are given a timely trial, Ontario says it will appoint 13 more judges to its Court of Justice and hire 32 additional assistant Crown prosecutors.

The province will also hire 16 more duty counsel, the lawyers assigned to defendants, to help speed up the bail process.

And it will implement measures to help keep low-risk, marginalized people out of the rotating door of the bail system, directing them away from prisons and into the health and social services they need, or into supervised housing known as "bail beds."

These measures could have helped Mr. Capay, by getting him a quicker trial. They could have also saved Mr. Coaster, who was put in solitary for violating a bail condition ordering him not to drink – a useless and self-defeating condition to impose on a low-risk offender suffering from an addiction.

Governments constantly make decisions to spend money – on roads, bridges, gas plants, schools. But it is arguable that no dollar can be better spent in a liberal democracy than on a properly functioning court system.

It is too soon to say whether Ontario has committed enough resources and money to fix its justice system; Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi should keep an open mind about adding more if need be. But this is a good start. It demonstrates that the government has accepted that reforms are needed, and needed now.

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