It’s a fact that most of the people in Ontario prisons haven’t been found guilty of any crime. That’s because more than 60 per cent of the people currently incarcerated by this province are simply awaiting trial. Nearly half of them haven’t even been charged with violent or serious offences; nearly a third will see their charges withdrawn or dismissed before trial. Nevertheless, they languish in provincial detention — without their liberty and at an enormous financial cost to the government.
This is not normal, or at least it’s not supposed to be: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees everyone the right to reasonable bail conditions to avoid pre-trial detention, and federal law gives Ontario officials sufficient leeway to avoid the situation. But despite declining crime rates, the government relies more on incarceration now than it did in the 1990s. That, in short, is the message behind a new report reviewing Ontario’s corrections system.
“Significant changes to the way this population is treated have enormous potential to reduce overcrowding, mitigate the impacts of pre-trial detention, and enhance community safety,” writes Howard Sapers, the province’s independent advisor on corrections reform.
The report also contains findings that go beyond the pre-trial custody issue: Ontario’s corrections system relies too heavily on strip searches (a common failing in this province); gives inmates fewer chances to see family than other jurisdictions do; fails to conduct independent reviews of the majority of inmate deaths; and generally treats inmates in provincial correctional centres as if their Charter rights didn’t matter. On top of that, Ontario makes it harder to get out of jail early — granting parole much less often than Quebec does, for example — having reduced the granting of paroles by 92 per cent since 1993. It goes without saying (but probably shouldn’t) that the burden of provincial neglect falls especially hard on Indigenous people and other minorities.
And while Sapers was adamant on Tuesday that the government must follow through on all of his recommendations, it’s easy to see that the best way to avoid mistreating inmates in Ontario jails is to not unnecessarily imprison people in the first place. Yes, we need to treat inmates better and start from the assumption that incarceration should be no more punitive than necessary. But the easiest way to avoid mistreating inmates is to try to have fewer of them. The second best would be to get them out of jail as soon as is reasonable — which would mean a more generous use of paroles.
Sapers’s report says that the government can do these things without putting public safety at risk. But most of his measures would mean spending more money, both on new programs inside prisons and on services geared to keeping people out, releasing them earlier, and supervising them when they’re released.
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Attorney General Yasir Naqvi says the government is working on reducing the number of people incarcerated in pre-trial custody. On Tuesday, he told TVO.org about changes the Liberals introduced late last year to improve access and fairness in the province’s courts, among them the introduction of more services for inmates seeking bail. Naqvi says the government has also rewritten the provincial policy on bail, which guides requests from Crown prosecutors. The revised policy will be announced in the coming weeks.
“It focuses on making sure that presumption of innocence is paramount and that individuals aren’t subject to unnecessary or onerous conditions,” Naqvi says. “It really focuses on changing both the culture and practice around bail.”
The government can shape the “culture and practice” of Crown prosecutors, but the bigger question may be whether it can shape the culture and practice of voters. For politicians, the biggest risk of a more humane use of bail and parole is that someone will commit a crime they would have otherwise been incapable of because they were behind bars — and that voters will wreak their terrible vengeance on whoever is in Naqvi’s chair that day.
The first response to this anxiety is that, in a free society, the government isn’t actually allowed to imprison its way to security. The second response is that even Ontario’s bizarrely punitive system still can’t protect people perfectly: Christopher Husbands, accused of the 2012 Eaton Centre shooting (and currently being re-tried after a successful appeal) was out on bail when the shooting occurred.
And, finally, we can say with some certainty that an unjust system that isn’t even guaranteed to protect people is incredibly expensive for what it does. Ontario’s insistence on locking up even minor offenders in maximum security prisons is costing us dearly, and while Sapers was careful to say that his recommendations would cost money, it’s hard to argue that we’d get less value for what we spend.
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