Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Justice system clogged

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Manitoba has the highest incarceration rate in Canada, primarily because of the high number of people in custody who are on remand waiting for their case to make it to court, according to the latest report from Statistics Canada. Crime is on the decline and the province has expanded its jail system with more beds, yet the squeeze continues.

The usual excuses for this sad profile -- not enough prosecutors and the two-for-one credit that was given to defendants for the dead time spent on remand -- can no longer be trotted out by the province.

The Manitoba government started hiring new Crown attorneys three years ago, including 10 last year, with plans for more hiring over the next few years. A shortage of prosecutors, then, is not the problem, if it ever was.

And the federal government eliminated the two-for-one protocol two years ago because it was blamed for encouraging defendants to delay their sentencing so they would serve less real time in jail.

The incarceration rate is unlikely to ease up on its own, particularly with the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences and other initiatives that could result in more people being locked up for longer periods of time, although it is too early to prejudge the impact of the federal crime legislation.

The fact is there is still a major backlog in dealing with cases expeditiously and it can sometimes take nine months or longer for a case to go to trial, or even to arrive in front of a sentencing judge.

The system seems like it is poorly organized and in chaos, without the organization or leadership needed to clean up the mess.

The courts might start by putting in a full year's worth of work, instead of slowing down dramatically during the summer months. There are no jury trials held in the summer, when you can shoot a cannon through parts of the Law Courts without hitting anyone. If there aren't enough judges, then the province could consider using more retired judges for summer sittings to clear up backlogs.

Another problem reported by some defence attorneys is a judiciary that is largely composed of former prosecutors, some of whom may be more inclined to deny bail to people facing serious charges, even if there is no evidence they won't appear in court or that they might reoffend if released. Without a case by case analysis, however, it is impossible to say if this complaint is valid.

Many people on bail are often re-arrested for minor breaches of their terms of release, such as adhering to a curfew or abstaining from alcohol, which also clogs up the system.

It must be acknowledged, once again, that aboriginals are over-represented in the justice system, a fact that has been known and discussed for decades, without any meaningful response or reversal of the trend.

The same problems and issues can be found in other provinces, but Manitoba leads the pack by a wide margin. The adult incarceration rate of 213 per 100,000 people here is more than double the provincial/territorial average of 90.

Justice Minister Andrew Swan needs to take another, harder look at the system to improve efficiencies and, above all, justice. Manitoba has enough "firsts" to its reputation without also being known as the incarceration capital of Canada.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2012 A10

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