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Jails overcrowded, may get more so

Ottawa's tough-on-crime stance may make problem even worse

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Manitoba can't add jail cells fast enough to a corrections system that's bursting at the seams.

Almost every provincial jail is jammed with inmates beyond the capacity the facility was built to handle, according to figures Attorney General Andrew Swan released.

Now officials are gearing up for what could be even more prisoners as Ottawa kills the controversial two-for-one credit judges often award offenders for time spent in pretrial custody. The move is designed to reduce the high number of prisoners on remand -- 70 per cent of people in provincial jails are in that legal limbo between being charged and tried. But some fear the opposite effect.

"The big problem is the courts are backed up," University of Winnipeg criminology professor Michael Weinrath said. "It may mean the Crown can leverage more guilty pleas, but you're still going to have a remand population."

The Harper government is also looking at mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and making inmates earn their parole rather than have it handed to them automatically under statutory release.

Swan said the impact of these changes on the provincial system is unknown, but it's something that's being watched closely. "It is a challenge because there are so many factors," Swan said. "Our hope is they'll (offenders) start dealing with their situations earlier."

Swan said with more offenders pleading guilty to charges, those convicted of serious crimes will move into the federal system like Stony Mountain Institution a lot sooner.

But it also means more inmates entering the provincial system -- and at a steeper cost.

Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Wednesday the federal price tag on the Truth in Sentencing Act will be $2 billion over five years. However, the provinces might end up paying even more. That's because most offenders are convicted of sentences of two years less a day, which puts them into a provincial jail cell.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page is expected to release his own report next week on the new act. He's expected to show the cost of ending the two-for-one credit could run up to $10 billion over five years, split between federal and provincial governments.

"We don't see this as a magic solution," said John Hutton of the Manitoba branch of the John Howard Society, which advocates for the rights of prisoners. "It could make the problem get worse."

Hutton said overcrowding means inmates spend more time in their cells than they would under normal circumstances. That builds resentment that's transferred to guards.

He said corrections officials have adopted a plan to spread inmates around the system so no one jail is completely overcrowded, but it means a suspect arrested for an offence in Winnipeg is housed in Brandon. That creates a logistical nightmare of getting people to court and to see their lawyers and family.

Swan said the province has not ruled out adding even more jail cells to what it's adding now and what it's added over the past few years. He said since the NDP came to power in 1999 they've essentially added the capacity of another Headingley Correctional Institution or another 300 beds to the corrections system.

Manitoba isn't alone in jail overcrowding. Saskatchewan had the highest adult incarceration rate of all provinces, according to a 2009 Statistics Canada report. Saskatchewan had 187 adults behind bars per 100,000 population. Manitoba was second-highest at 177, while Nova Scotia (59) and Newfoundland and Labrador (68) were lowest.

Progressive Conservative justice critic Kelvin Goertzen said the province should have started adding more jail spaces a lot sooner to deal with the overflow and current practice of triple-bunking inmates in a single cell.

"The federal Conservatives have been crystal-clear on getting more offenders off the street," Goertzen said.

Goertzen said if the province wanted to truly focus on public safety it would build a new adult jail to house more inmates rather than adding onto existing facilities.

"It is expensive," he said. "We've never shied away from that. But there is a cost to victimization."

Weinrath also said the cost of adding more jail cells is more expensive than what the government says.

"You have to run these places," he said. "They are a huge payroll. There's operational costs. It costs $8 million to $10 million a year to run these places."

Weinrath added Canada is now locking up more people than it ever has, but it has not had a significant impact on crime.

"We do have a fairly violent province and certainly you can't just hold the hands of recidivists," he said. "I think right now there is a need for increased use of custody, but I'd be very cautious.

"People will get out eventually. You can't lock them up forever."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2010 A4

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