A man hits an overturned car with debris during the Stanley Cup riot last week.

EDITORIAL: Riot justice comes with a price tag

Court system has been badly under-funded for nearly a decade.

In just one short week since the 2011 Stanley Cup riot in downtown Vancouver, remarkable strides have already taken place.

First, citizens banded together to “take back their streets,” showing up in the tens of thousands Thursday morning to help clean up the destruction left behind by the out-of-control thugs the night before.

An “wall of hope” was created on the plywood boarding up The Bay and other stores that were blatantly looted by gleeful hooligans, with scores of contributors sharing the angst and embarrassment of watching their beloved city become so badly tarnished on the world stage.

In unprecedented fashion, users of social media united to “out” those who trashed property, beat up bystanders and torched police cars. The “name and shame” campaign has resulted in several arrests, and in some cases, prompted rioters to turn themselves in to police.

Officials are vowing those responsible for the numerous criminal acts that took place and the estimated millions of dollars in damage incurred will be punished to the full extent of the law. With the work of a new Integrated Riot Investigation Team involving officers from across the region, along with a dedicated team of Crown prosecutors, Premier Christy Clark promises to pursue criminal charges “wherever possible and appropriate.” (See her letter, opposite page).

There’s just one not-so-small problem with all this positive response: The justice system itself.

Chronically underfunded for nearly a decade, B.C.’s courts are on the brink of collapse. Just last week, a murder in Richmond and a home invasion in North Vancouver were among the latest cases delayed due to a desperate shortage of sheriffs. Other trials have been postponed in recent months in Richmond, Victoria, Nanaimo and the Okanagan. And at least four additional criminal cases were put on hold over the past two weeks in Vancouver Provincial Court.

In fact across the province, thanks to shortages of sheriffs, judges, prosecutors and legal aid lawyers, more than 2,100 criminal cases are now at risk of being tossed out of court due to delays that threaten to violate the accused’s right to be tried within a reasonable time.

But the B.C. Liberals have remained steadfastly stubborn. As outlined in The Leader’s special series earlier this year – Justice Denied – despite a chorus of voices calling for an emergency infusion of cash to unclog the system, another $14.5 million is being cut from the courts this year, followed by a funding freeze for the next two years, until 2014.

While Clark has pledged to provide the money necessary to catch, charge and prosecute the rioters, with the respect to the latter, no dollar figure has emerged.

Were she to walk the talk, Clark would need to bring her pocketbook.

Critics estimate it would cost roughly $25 to $30 million a year in additional funding to bring court staffing up to the level it was six years ago –as well as forestall further cuts currently planned.

That amounts to roughly a six-per-cent increase in the $458-million operating budget of the attorney general’s ministry – a figure described by advocates as barely a rounding error in terms of the multi-billion-dollar health care budget.

The public response to last week’s riot suggests the time is ripe to funnel much-needed cash into the courts. All that’s required now is the political will.

Surrey North Delta Leader

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