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‘Open for discussion’: Ford government reviewing DUI downgrade policy

Ontario’s Attorney General is revisiting a pandemic policy that allowed Crown prosecutors to downgrade thousands of drunk driving charges as the province grappled with a massive backlog of cases in the criminal justice system.

Global News revealed that the Ford government issued a directive to Crown prosecutors during the pandemic to consider withdrawing criminal impaired driving charges in non-serious cases in exchange for a guilty plea to careless driving, to reduce the burden on provincial courts.

The offer would spare an accused drunk driver a criminal record while slapping them with licence suspensions and fines under the Highway Traffic Act,  and would force them to install an interlock device preventing them from operating a vehicle while impaired.

While the policy was first brought in during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of the Attorney General initially argued the policy was still needed to deal with the effects of delays.

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“The policy is in place to prioritize the prosecution of serious offences like gun crimes and sexual assault and therefore reducing the likelihood that such egregious case prosecutions would be dismissed for delay,” a spokesperson for the Attorney General told Global News when initially asked about the policy in January.

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On Friday, however, Attorney General Doug Downey changed tracks in an interview with Global News.

“It was not a permanent change,” Downey said. “It was a COVID change … to make sure that we were dealing with the backlog.”

Downey, however, says the province is now “assessing the backlog” along with the groups representing police chiefs, police associations, the court system, and the chief justice to assess the policy.

“It’s been open for discussion,” Downey said. “It’s a live discussion.”

Province facing growing calls to rescind policy

At an alcohol-related news conference on Friday, Premier Doug Ford offered his view on impaired driving charges.

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“There’s zero tolerance for drinking and driving,” Ford said as the government loosened access to alcohol.

While the premier’s comments stand in stark contrast to his government’s actions, his views align with his critics who called on the province to rescind the policy.

NDP MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam believes the policy is tantamount to a “slap on the wrist” and wants to see it eliminated.

“I think the policy should be revoked because it was introduced during a COVID pandemic time,” Wong-Tam said. “Clearly we are not in that time anymore.”

Wong-Tam also questioned the government’s rationale for the policy.

“We’ve seen over 1,300 sexual assault cases in Ontario being dropped last year in terms of not getting to trial,” Wong-Tam said, pointing to data obtained by the NDP.

“(They are) reducing criminal charges when it comes to impaired driving and claiming that this is because they want the system to run efficiently. Well, it hasn’t happened.”

While Downey wouldn’t commit to pulling the policy, he said conversations with stakeholders will begin next week.

Downey, however, wouldn’t give Global News a timeline for when a decision would be made.

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