OTTAWA -- An internal government study suggests a tough new sentencing law is affecting people in Winnipeg more than in other Canadian cities.
Justice Canada carried out an internal study into the issue of credit for pre-trial custody -- also known as remand -- by collecting court data over three months in 2008 in six cities: Vancouver, Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.
And a preliminary July 2009 report drawing on 582 cases found people awaiting trial in Winnipeg and Whitehorse spent far longer in remand than their counterparts in Toronto and Vancouver.
In Winnipeg, the average was 120 days compared with 17 days in Toronto. In Whitehorse, the average was 54 days. "The cities were... quite different in terms of remand practices," the authors concluded.
"For example, in Winnipeg defendants were spending much more time in remand than the other cities. This could, in turn, have an effect on pre-sentencing custody credits. ... The courts might be more likely to award credits in Winnipeg, where the time spent in remand was more substantial than in Toronto, where defendants were not spending very much time in pre-sentencing custody."
The Justice Canada findings lend support to critics who warn Bill C-25, the so-called Truth in Sentencing Act, unfairly targets the poor, the illiterate and Canada's aboriginal community.
The bill, which became law in February, ended the widespread practice of giving convicted persons double credit for time spent in custody awaiting trial. Judges handing out sentences are restricted under the new law to giving one-for-one credit -- that is, they can reduce a sentence by one year for every year spent in pre-sentencing custody. Only in special circumstances can they bump that ratio up to 1.5-to-one and only if they provide a written rationale.
The study, conducted before the tougher sentencing rules were imposed, also showed judges in Winnipeg gave two-for-one credits about 80 per cent of the time -- something now forbidden.
The internal study was cited in a secret memorandum to cabinet about Bill C-25, but was not made public as the House of Commons and Senate debated the proposed legislation.
A vocal critic of Bill C-25, Craig Jones of the John Howard Society of Canada, said many of those in remand in Winnipeg are likely aboriginals.
The city is home to about 70,000 aboriginals, or about 10 per cent of the local population, the highest level of Canada's major cities.
"They're poorer, economically, socially, and for various reasons they are less able to advocate for themselves," Jones said in an interview, adding many cannot afford to pay bail money.
"So they end up spending more time in remand."
Winnipeg lawyer Jay Prober agreed. He said there's no question Winnipeg has a larger aboriginal population than the other cities studied, which would mean it has a larger percentage of aboriginal people charged.
"For the most part, they can't afford to hire private counsel. They have to hire legal-aid lawyers. It may well be that we're short-staffed with legal-aid lawyers. I know there are a lot of private sector lawyers who won't do legal aid. (The accused) might have to wait longer to see a lawyer and they may have to wait longer to do a bail application," he said.
"I think the bill is unfair, period. If it ends up that it does, in fact, accidentally target a particular segment of our population, then it's totally unfair."
-- The Canadian Press, with files from Geoff Kirbyson