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Thousands of accused people being needlessly detained: civil rights advocates

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Winnipeg Lawyer Corey Shefman, president of the Manitoba Association of Rights and Liberties, says the way Manitoba's bail system works for people accused of crimes is broken and is interfering with their right to be presumed innocent.

JAMES TURNER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Winnipeg Lawyer Corey Shefman, president of the Manitoba Association of Rights and Liberties, says the way Manitoba's bail system works for people accused of crimes is broken and is interfering with their right to be presumed innocent. Photo Store

Manitoba's bail system for accused people is broken and a provincial policy mandating "zero tolerance" for breaches of bail conditions is a major reason why, rights and inmate advocates said this morning.

The comments were made as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association released a massive report and recommendations for change based on a year-long study of the workings of bail courts in five Canadian provinces and territories, including Manitoba.

The CCLA says the findings of its study shows thousands of suspects are being needlessly detained behind bars as they wait for their day in court.

As well, this over-detention of accused people calls into question the commitment officials have towards the foundational legal right of being presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in court.

"This report should be a wake-up call for all Manitobans and Canadians," Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties president Corey Shefman told reporters at a press conference held outside the Law Courts Complex in Winnipeg.

"Out of all the provinces studied, Manitoba has the highest percentage of inmates who are in pre-trial custody," Shefman said.

That translates to roughly 66 per cent of people housed in provincial jails being there on remand status. That's the highest in the country, he contended.

In Manitoba, suspects who are granted bail fall prey to a Crown policy of "zero tolerance" for breaches, meaning any slip-up — no matter how minor — leads to being rearrested and returned to custody.

"We need to make it stop," Shefman, who is also a local lawyer, said.

He agreed with the suggestion the so-called "tough on crime" posture many politicians have found favour with is directly linked to the systemic problem.

"The 'tough on crime' agenda is certainly a factor here," Shefman said.

As well, onerous bail conditions imposed on suspects who are poor or addicted to drugs and alcohol aren't proving effective, he added.

His organization called on Premier Greg Selinger and Justice Minister Andrew Swan to take decisive and swift action.

"It is no longer sufficient for the government to simply throw money at the problem," Shefman said.

The CCLA's report — titled Set up to fail: Bail and the revolving door of pre-trial detention, was being met with approval from an agency which advocates for the rights of inmates.

John Hutton of the Manitoba chapter of the John Howard Society said the size of Manitoba's remand population is concerning, as is the "zero-tolerance" policy, which he said is exclusive to the province and not seen elsewhere.

"Rather than making our streets safer zero-tolerance clogs our courts and jails by making simple, everyday acts like being late (for curfew or meetings) or having a drink a criminal offence for those on bail," Hutton said.

The JHS in Manitoba has a specialized supervision and treatment program for male inmates, but it can only take so many clients — a "drop in the bucket" compared to what's actually needed, Hutton said.

"A whole new approach is needed that focuses on making bail a reasonable and attainable option for the vast majority of those facing charges," Hutton said.

In Manitoba, it costs $196 a day to house an adult offender in jail.

The Free Press has requested comment from the province and will update this story.

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Wednesday, July 23, 2014 at 12:29 PM CDT: Adds photo

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