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Fair treatment of African Nova Scotians at the centre of new prosecution policy

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia Crown prosecutors were handed new tools today to root out systemic anti-Black racism long embedded within the province’s justice system.

After years of study, the province’s Public Prosecution Service unveiled a comprehensive policy that will guide Crown attorneys through criminal proceedings involving African Nova Scotians and people of African descent.

Rick Woodburn, acting director of public prosecutions, says the policy was developed in response to the long-standing overrepresentation of Black people in the criminal justice system.

“This policy is not just a set of guidelines,” Woodburn said in a statement. “It’s a commitment to more transparency, fairness and justice for African Nova Scotians and an important step in dealing with overrepresentation.”

The policy acknowledges the long history of slavery in Canada, dating back to 1713, its abolishment in 1833, and ongoing racist policies and practices that have resulted in significant social and economic disadvantages for African Nova Scotians.

“The policy is a tool to help ensure African Nova Scotians and people of African descent are treated fairly and equitably in any prosecution,” Brad Johns, the province’s  justice minister, said in a statement. 

“Crown attorneys must be able to conduct culturally competent prosecutions and be able to recognize and address issues of racism and discrimination in their cases.”

Among other things, the 16-page policy says that when an accused person is identified as African Nova Scotian or a person of African descent, the Crown must ensure police disclosure of evidence is not tainted by racism and discrimination.

As well, it cites the diversion of criminal cases to the province’s restorative justice program, which could reduce the number of Black people in custody.

The restorative justice program focuses on rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large, often with the assistance of facilitators in a group setting. Typically, plans are made to have the offender address the harms caused, and if they successfully complete the program, charges are usually dismissed.

The new policy also provides guidance on the use of Impact of Race and Culture Assessments, which are reports to the court that describe the accused’s cultural background. And the policy reminds Crown attorneys about challenging potential jurors at the selection stage for racial bias.

In cases involving racial discrimination, the policy says Crown attorneys should consult with the chief Crown and colleagues on the service’s equity and diversity committee. 

Nova Scotia’s Public Prosecution Service was established in 1990 in response to the provincial public inquiry into the 1971 wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall Jr., who spent 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. 

The inquiry concluded that Nova Scotia’s criminal justice system “failed at virtually every turn” as police, judges and lawyers were plagued by racism and incompetence.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2024.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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