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Crown prosecutors, defence lawyers question scope of new Alberta tough-on-crime initiative

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Two sides that don't often see eye to eye agree there are some problems with the province's new plan to apprehend and jail more violent and serious criminals.

On Monday, Alberta's justice minister and Edmonton's mayor and police chief all hailed the new initiative, unveiled on Monday, but Crown and defence lawyers say the new plan will undermine the gains made by a so-called prosecutorial triage program meant to streamline the justice system.

The province's plan is to no longer pass by blatant crimes, including drug abuse on big-city streets, or let violent offenders out of custody while they await trial.

"There’s an increasing sense that our justice system is not holding criminals properly accountable," Mickey Amery, provincial justice minister, said Monday at a media conference.

The search for Crown prosecutors to volunteer to tackle the expected flood of new arrests and cases will begin immediately, Amery said.

"The Crown Prosecutor caseload is at a very manageable level at this time," he said. "It’s lower than it’s been in years, and we’re certainly comfier so we can take on this additional responsibility."

Big concerns are being raised, however, given that the government will try to crack down on crime and, at the same time, remove from prosecutors the so-called triage system that had streamlined case flow by dropping files with little likelihood of conviction.

It's a recipe for disaster, says Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association vice-president Shawn King.

"Are we going to have more matters being stayed, is that what they are looking to do?" King said to CTV News Edmonton on Tuesday. "Or is this just a nice soundbite saying we're going to get rid of this triage and hopefully it will speed things up? Because it won’t. We’ve already come across that problem."

Crown prosecutors agree. Dallas Sopko, the president of the Alberta Crown Attorney's Association, says there are still hundreds of important cases in the queue even with the triage system and without expected new cases.

"There are over 800 serious and violent cases in Edmonton and Calgary that are over the Jordan threshold, so they are at risk of potentially being stayed," he said, adding that more resources would be needed to help the new tough-on-crime initiative succeed.

"If we are no longer triaging files or relying on the triage program, presumably there are going to be more files and more trials," Sopko said.

"We’re going to need more resources to prosecute them, we’re going to need more courtrooms for those matters to be heard in those courtrooms, we’re going to need more judges in those courtrooms, we’re going to need more clerks in those courtrooms, and we’re going to need more sheriffs."

No new funding was announced with Monday's tough-on-crime initiative, but the province's Crown prosecution services maintains there have been 50 new Crown prosecutor positions added since 2019, and that a pre-charge assessment process continues to be rolled out province-wide to ensure only cases that meet acceptable standards will proceed.

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