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Onerous bail practices rapped

Suspects with addictions regularly set up to fail, rights groups allege

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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 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 interfering with their right to be presumed innocent. Photo Store

The principle of being innocent until proven guilty is arguably the most sacred in the criminal justice system.

But this fundamental legal shield is being seriously undermined by the current bail system in Canada, and people who haven't been convicted of any crime are being unnecessarily detained in droves, civil rights and inmate advocates charged on Wednesday.

The problem is profound in Manitoba, where 66 per cent of accused persons being housed in provincial jails sit waiting for their day in court, says Corey Shefman, a Winnipeg lawyer and president of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties (MARL).

The key local issue, Shefman said, is a "zero-tolerance" Manitoba Justice policy when it comes to bail breaches.

Suspects, especially those with addictions, are essentially being set up to fail on release due to the restrictive and onerous bail conditions they're placed on, he said.

Minor slip-ups -- a missed meeting, being late for curfew -- lead to them being rearrested and returned to remand, Shefman added.

"We need to make it stop," said Shefman.

'The tough-on-crime agenda is certainly a factor here'

-- Corey Shefman, president of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties

So-called "tough-on-crime" posturing many politicians favour is directly linked to the systemic problem with bail hearings, said Shefman.

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

His organization is calling 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," said Shefman.

It costs $196 a day to house an inmate in a provincial jail in Manitoba, and soars even higher for youth suspects being held in custody.

MARL and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association released a massive report Wednesday examining bail practices in five Canadian provinces and territories for one year.

The study, entitled Set up to fail: Bail and the revolving door of pretrial detention, found the use of pretrial custody has risen nearly 300 per cent over the last three decades.

During the same time, crime rates have declined, with 2012 recorded as the safest year since 1972.

On an average day in 2012-13, more than 25,000 people were incarcerated in Canada's provincial and territorial jails.

Of those, about 55 per cent were awaiting trial or a bail hearing -- a higher number than convicted and sentenced offenders.

"The cycle of detention, restrictive release and rearrest could theoretically be justified if it were necessary for public safety or to ensure an accused person will return to court to face pending charges," the study states. "Most of the people admitted to pretrial detention, however, are there for non-violent offences, and one in five people are there simply because they failed to comply with a bail or probation condition."

Bail-related breach charges are on the increase and are clogging the courts, the study notes. Between 2006 and 2012, there was a 27 per cent increase in these charges to more than 167,000.

The study and its recommendations for change were being met with approval from inmate-advocacy agency the John Howard Society.

Manitoba's chapter of the JHS has a specialized supervision and treatment program for male inmates, but it can only take so many clients, executive director John Hutton said.

It's a "drop in the bucket compared to what's actually needed," said Hutton. People who enter and complete the JHS bail program have a very low reoffending rate, he added.

Keeping people in custody doesn't enhance public safety, said Hutton. Forty per cent of people held without bail go on to commit another crime after they are released, he said.

Swan was unavailable Wednesday for comment.

A provincial spokeswoman said bail programs such as the one run by the JHS are specifically meant to help people who have difficulty meeting bail requirements.

"Adult bail practises zero tolerance on all orders," said the spokeswoman. "The only discretion is in how quickly the charge is laid -- they may not do it the day of a missed appointment but rather give the client a short time to contact them," she said. The province also noted its range of programs available for people being held in custody.

 

-- with files from The Canadian Press

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 A3

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