The crowding in provincial jails is a historical problem. It has been driven not by a rise in crime or longer sentences, but by the burgeoning number of adults held in pretrial custody.
In 2009, Statistics Canada found, 69 per cent of Manitoba adults in custody were on remand. Some of that proportional rise -- seen across Canada, but more so here -- is due to fewer adults sentenced to jail time, but it is heavily driven by increasing numbers of those charged held in custody before trial. The time spent in remand detention has lengthened, as well. Dealing with the remand problem could solve the overcrowding of Manitoba's jails.
Manitoba has 1,492 beds in its adult jails, but the average daily "bed count" last year was 2,214. Six of the jails were built for sentenced adults, but the number on remand alone would have exceeded the capacity of all seven jails on any given day.
In Canada, 70 per cent of people in detention on remand are there for non-violent charges, chiefly for breach of probation or conditions of release. Police data in 2005 showed a 40 per cent increase in bail-order violations in the last 10 years. What is driving the breaches? More data is required, but Statistics Canada has found some 90 per cent of inmates being held on remand were substance abusers; abstention from alcohol or drugs is a typical condition of release. Similarly, in 2009-10, more Canadian youth were in pretrial detention than in sentenced custody, but the rates of incarceration for both fell in recent years.
Manitoba stands out in Canada for having the highest increase in remand rates, but the Justice department has no good overview of who is there and why, or how long they have been awaiting trial.
It is quickly accepted that tougher laws being passed by Ottawa will drive the jail populations up in Canada and Justice Minister Andrew Swan, who lobbied Ottawa hard for harsher sentences, is joining provincial counterparts to demand more federal cash to pay for the pressure on courts and jails from the Criminal Code amendments.
Mr. Swan knows why Manitoba's jails are crowded. But fixing that can't be done without a good idea of why so many people are landing in detention -- an expensive option to keeping them in the community before trial. Before attacking a problem that might arise from harsher laws, Mr. Swan should address the one that has been sitting under his nose for years.