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Wpg Free Press: The high cost of jailing the innocent

October 30, 2014 — 

Debra Parkes, an associate dean (research and graduate studies) in the Faculty of Law (Robson Hall),  and Abby Deshman, director of the public safety program for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, wrote an editorial for the Winnipeg Free Press that was published in the print edition on Oct. 30, 2014, A13.

They wrote:


Manitoba’s jail population is soaring. In the last 10 years, the jail population has more than doubled, leading to dangerously overcrowded, under-resourced correctional facilities. In the last six years, the government has spent $182 million to increase the number of spaces in jails by 52 per cent.

But the overcrowding persists.

According to the last auditor general’s report, every single correctional centre is operating over capacity. Cells built for one are holding two or three, and recreational, programming and treatment space is being taken over and converted to cell space.

Such conditions are dangerous for both staff and prisoners. The number of serious security incidents rose by 43 per cent from 2009-12. Why are there so many more Manitobans behind bars?

It’s not because more people are being found guilty and sentenced for crimes they have committed. In fact, overall crime rates as well as violent crime are down, both in Manitoba and across the country. And most people entering our jails are charged with minor, non-violent crimes. In Manitoba, they are overwhelmingly indigenous people, increasingly women, and living in poverty.

The reasons for this increase are found at the front end of the criminal justice system.

The vast majority of the people behind bars in this province are legally innocent.

The vast majority of the people behind bars in this province are legally innocent. Manitoba leads the country in this regard with 66 per cent of the people in the province’s jails on remand — waiting for their bail decision or trial. Manitoba’s jails have not always looked like this: In 1997, the remand population accounted for 35 per cent of the total custodial population. Next door in Saskatchewan, the rate is currently much lower with 38 per cent of the prison population on remand.

Most of these people are not charged with serious crimes. Across the country, two-thirds of the people coming before bail courts are accused of non-violent offences. One out of every five people in pre-trial custody is there because of administration of justice charges — allegations, for example, they missed an appointment, stayed out past curfew, or drank alcohol contrary to a court order.

In Manitoba, it is formal government policy to criminalize these types of actions. In 2011, policy was overhauled to reduce probation officers’ discretion when dealing with breaches of bail or probation conditions. This makes it likely that someone who is late to a supervision appointment, an alcoholic who takes a drink, or someone who stays out past curfew, will be reported, arrested, charged, and taken back to jail.

Jailing legally innocent people for missing a meeting is not a sensible way to keep communities safe. For those who are already struggling to make ends meet and support their families, cope with addictions or mental illness, and generally keep their lives on track, the consequences of even a short stay in pre-trial custody can be devastating. Unexpectedly removed from their daily lives for days, weeks, or months, they frequently face lost income and employment, housing, emergency child care, missed medication, and any number of other negative repercussions. Families lose their primary income-earner, and children of single parents may end up in child protection.

The financial cost of a high pre-trial detention population is unsustainable. It costs about $170 per day to keep someone in pre-trial custody; a typical stay of seven days in pre-trial detention costs more than $1,000. In contrast, supervising a person in the community costs around $5 per day. A conservative calculation pegs spending at $89 million per year to jail Manitobans before trial. These figures do not capture the additional costs of bail court services, transportation, legal aid, Crown counsel, judges, and court staff necessary to process a person through the bail courts.

Simply put, we should not be spending significant policing, correctional and court resources on jailing people for missing appointments, drinking, unexpectedly changing addresses, or any other number of acts that normally are not criminal. We have moved a long way in practice from the presumption of innocence and the law of bail which, in most cases, presumes people should be released unconditionally while waiting trial. We have also poured millions of dollars into a revolving door of incarceration when that money would be much more productively spent on safe and affordable housing, community-based treatment and support for addictions and mental health, and poverty reduction.

The majority of people appearing before bail courts are charged with minor, non-violent offences. They have not even been found guilty. Yet we spend enormous resources restricting, monitoring, and jailing this population. There is no trade-off between a sensible, defensible, rights-respecting bail system and public safety: These are mutually reinforcing goals. Manitobans should demand their policies and spending priorities reflect that reality.


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