Ontario jails are full of people waiting for their day in court
On any given day, two-thirds of the inmates in Ontario prisons are people who have never had their day in court. They’re on remand, usually awaiting trial and therefore legally innocent.
Advocates have been calling for changes to an overcrowded prison system for years — and on Thursday, the government responded, unveiling steps it says will speed up the court process, and allow more people to wait for trial outside of the prison walls.
Attorney General Yasir Naqvi announced he is boosting resources to address the backlog, appointing 13 judges to the Ontario Court of Justice, 32 assistant Crown Attorneys, 16 duty counsel, and 26 court staff.
He will also expand the existing bail and supervision program to the entire province, launch a “bail beds program” for people who would be homeless if released on bail in five Ontario communities, make duty counsel available at six correctional facilities that serve high-volume courthouses, and develop a program specifically for Indigenous people that will allow them to remain in their communities while waiting for trial.
“Our criminal courts are bottlenecked, daily dockets are jammed, and early trial days are hard to come by,” said Naqvi, whose government has faced mounting pressure to address a host of issues, including the use of solitary confinement. “This is not good for anyone. Justice delayed is justice denied for victims, for witnesses, for the accused, for all of us.”
The staggering reality that just one third of the province’s prison population is actually serving criminal sentences is a symptom of what many say is a broken and bloated correctional system. As the capacity of jails has ballooned over the decades, while their footprints remain the same, the issue of judicial delays has become more urgent.
In the summer, the Supreme Court of Canada sounded the alarm, and ruled that defendants should not be waiting more than 30 months for a trial — a decision that Naqvi acknowledged on Thursday has “changed the landscape” and forced governments to provide the resources needed to hear and try cases faster.
Prisoners on remand are those who have yet to receive a verdict, but who did not post bail, or who have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing. The issue of remand, trial delays, and prison overcrowding are tightly intertwined.
“Holding someone in detention before there’s a determination of guilt is a deprivation of liberty”
“The right to be tried within a reasonable period of time is a constitutional protection in this country, when people are unreasonably delayed or awaiting trial, it doesn’t serve the public interest,” said Sukanya Pillay of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“Holding someone in detention before there’s a determination of guilt is a deprivation of liberty, so any indefinite detention is concerning, and we have a problem right now.”
Community Safety and Correctional Services told VICE News that currently, two-thirds of the prison population is on remand, but refused to say much else. Repeated requests from VICE News to provide up-to-date information on the number of Ontarians awaiting trial in provincial jails were either ignored or refused.
The only up-to-date numbers come from Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, where on any given day in the last fiscal year, an average of 380 individuals were behind bars on remand. Overcrowding in that jail got so bad that inmates were being housed in shower cells, sparking public outrage in February. Since a task force looking into the jail put forward recommendations on how to improve its conditions, the total inmate population has dropped slightly. But as of the first quarter of this year, 344 inmates were on remand of an average daily total of 460.
Last year’s numbers, published published by the ministry in an internal report, suggest that the problem is systemic.
The Maplehurt Correctional Centre, which faced scandal after a judge awarded two inmates $85,000 for constant lockdowns that violated their constitutional rights, was build in 1972 with an original capacity of 420 and, although the original footprint of the jail hasn’t changed, it now houses 1,049 inmates thanks to retrofits. Last year, the jail saw an average daily total of 895 were on remand.
It’s a similar story for the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre where, on any given day, it houses an average of 379 inmates, 272 of whom were on remand.
The Central East Correctional Facility in Lindsay is a maximum security prison that topped the province’s jails in the number of complaints from inmates, saw three inmates get stabbed in February, and had the highest number of lockdowns (199) in 2014. More than half the inmates there, too, are on remand.
One of the Central East inmates is John Jansen, who was charged in a violent altercation outside a home in Newmarket that left one man dead and another man with stab wounds. By the time his trial is over in the spring of 2017, he’ll have been in pretrial custody for 39 months.
In an affidavit filed to the court, Jansen described the “profound impact” his incarceration has had on his life.
He’s grown distant from his parents and daughter, missed the birth of his first granddaughter, had limited access to his lawyer, and seen his health decline.
“To describe the conditions at the Lindsay jail during my stay here as terrible would be an understatement,” he wrote, describing lockdowns, overcrowding, and violence between inmates “in part because of the conditions of the jail.”
Graham Browne of the John Howard Society of Ontario said the impacts of pretrial custody can be “tremendous and in fact go beyond immediate effects.”
And it’s not just Ontario that is grappling with this issue. In 2014-2015, adults in remand made up 57 percent of the population in custody across the country — a figure that has jumped 39 percent in the last decade. Those numbers were highest in Nova Scotia and Alberta, which saw 68 and 67 percent respectively, according to Statistics Canada.
According to research cited by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in their 2014 report called Set Up to Fail: Bail and the Revolving Door of Pre-trial Detention, pretrial detention could encourage some accused to plead guilty in order to be released.
Jansen, who is charged with first degree murder and attempted murder, has filed an unreasonable delay application, which will be heard in January.
His case could be among thousands that now stand to be tossed out because of extensive delays.
On Thursday, despite the new changes to the bail system being implemented immediately, Naqvi could not guarantee that charges would not be thrown out.
“I’m not the decision maker in those respects, our judiciary makes those decisions, and I’ll respect their decisions always, but I want Ontarians to know that we’re responding to the challenge that was laid out by the Supreme Court of Canada … in an expeditious, effective manner, and we’re putting in real, meaningful permanent solutions in place that will ensure our criminal justice system is responsive, is faster and fairer.”
Cover: Photo by Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press