A group of Manitoba inmates has banded together to take on federal justice officials in court, claiming their fundamental rights are being trounced by being denied accelerated parole hearings to which they are entitled.
Their lawyer said Friday hundreds of Canadian inmates may be affected.
A lawsuit was filed this week by nine current federal inmates currently being held at the minimum-security Rockwood Institution near Stony Mountain.
The claim asserts corrections and parole officials are flouting the law as recently laid out by Canada's Supreme Court.
The backdrop to the inmates' complaint is how the federal government in March 2011 abolished a procedure known as accelerated parole review (APR), which entitled non-violent, first-time inmates a chance to seek parole after serving one-sixth of their sentences. A controversy erupted after the new rules were applied retroactively to hundreds of already-sentenced federal inmates who may have otherwise qualified for APR hearings, and therefore, early freedom from prison.
That decision was struck down recently by the Supreme Court of Canada. The top court unanimously ruled the government's retrospective application of the new law to inmates sentenced before March 28, 2011, was a way of punishing them twice and is therefore unconstitutional.
The latest twist, as set out by the Rockwood inmates, is their belief entitlement to APR hearings before the March 2011 deadline covers not just sentenced offenders, but also those who were arrested before that date.
Under Section 11(i) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, any person charged with a crime, if found guilty of it and if the punishment for it has been changed between the time it happened and the time they're sentenced, is supposed get the benefit of the lesser punishment.
"The wording is just so black-and-white," the inmates' Winnipeg lawyer Stephan Thliveris said Friday.
It's this fundamental legal rule underpinning the Rockwood inmates' case. They're seeking several Court of Queen's Bench rulings confirming their charter rights are being breached.
"I'm all for criminals being punished," said Thliveris, "but you can't just change the rules of the game as you go."
One of the inmates included in the claim is Mario Nucci, who was collared in 2008 following a covert police sting into the cocaine trade that saw investigators place hidden cameras at the granite business he ran.
In October 2012, he was sentenced to four years in prison for cocaine trafficking. He had no criminal record.
Under the old APR law, Nucci should have been granted an accelerated parole hearing after serving eight months.
"He should have been out a very long time ago," Thilveris said. The lawyer suspects there are scores of Canadian inmates who may be affected.
"These people, they're just lost at sea," he said. "There must be hundreds of inmates across the country who don't even know they're being screwed."