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Province appoints experts to investigate trouble with prolific offenders

Former Vancouver Police deputy chief and a health researcher and criminologist given 120 days to report back to Attorney General and Solicitor General
David Eby
B.C. Attorney General David Eby

The provincial government has asked two experts to report back in 120 days on how best to deal with prolific offenders in B.C.'s largest communities - Prince George among them.

Attorney General David Eby and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Thursday a former deputy police chief of Vancouver and an expert in mental health and corrections have been asked to come up with creative solutions and submit a report with recommendations in four months have been drafted to take on the task.

Although overall crime rates have declined, said Farnworth, there is a small group of prolific offenders who have repeatedly victimized British Columbians and they count for a disproportionate number of crimes, “including unprovoked random attacks, violence, graffiti, shoplifting, or property damage.”

“We know the shift in crime patterns is having an impact on people’s feelings of safety,” he said, noting the solutions will be multifaceted and include mental health supports, prosecution efforts, policing and other resources.

“That’s why our government is partnering with B.C. mayors to launch an investigation - to identify steps we can take to stop the scourge of prolific offenders and protect people and communities.”

Mike Morris, the MLA for Prince George-Mackenzie and the opposition BC Liberals' public safety critic said the step left him "extremely disappointed."

"I was expecting something a lot more substantial than another study and it just wasn't there. I don't think government grasps the seriousness of the situation that we have out there with the catch and release program that's going on," Morris said in reference to offenders being arrested and charged only to be released back into the community while they await prosecution.

The move was made nine days after a letter from the B.C. Urban Mayors Caucus to Eby and Farnworth was made public by the opposition BC Liberals.

The caucus says 204 prolific offenders (defined as those who have had more than 30 negative contacts with police in the past year) have accounted for 11,648 negative contacts.

Fifteen of them reside in Prince George where they accounted for 282 such contacts.

One of those Prince George offenders has generated 916 police files since 2016,  with 262 of those files recorded in the last year and of which 62 were mischief related. "None of the files have resulted in charges," the mayors say.

Morris said immediate measures could include assigning Crown prosecutors to specific prolific offenders whenever they appear in court. That way a prosecutor will have the "intimate knowledge" about an accused to help a judge make a proper decision on whether to keep the person in custody.

In keeping with comments made by the mayors of Kelowna and Victoria at a media event Thursday, Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall  said he was "extremely pleased" with the announcement and called the 120 days a "tight timeline" but achievable.

In answer to those who want action sooner, Hall said he understands its difficult to ask for more patience "but I think we need something substantive to really dig into."

"I understand that it's another four months but I also understand that this is significant work that has to happen," Hall said.

Prince George Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Corrigall gave a mixed review.

"It's nice to see some action coming forward on this, it's unfortunate the action is another report from which it will be another three to four months for findings to come from," Corrigall said.

Prince George RCMP Supt. Shaun Wright said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the report will yield concrete solutions and called 120 days "lightning fast" for government.

"It's nice to see the provincial government finally get engaged," Wright added. "In my opinion, they're a little late to the party. A lot of people have been saying a lot on this issue for a long time and I think there was enough vocal pressure from municipalities that it couldn't be ignored."

Eby said repeat offenders are unlikely to take up voluntary supports for issues related to mental health and addictions, but solutions may involve compulsory participation in programs that integrate both health and justice systems.

The experts will contact key stakeholders with practical or expertise related to the issue of prolific offenders and the recent rise in violent attacks — characterized as two different streams of people — for information on the origin of these trends and to develop suggestions on policy and legislative responses and also review a slew of current proposals to government.

While the report is four months out, many other initiatives are underway, the ministers said, and the investigators have been asked to bring forward any solutions they identify that could be implemented immediately.

The approach - billed as “creative” in recent weeks - is admittedly old but effective, said Eby.

- with files from Cindy E. Harnett, Glacier Media and The Canadian Press

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