There may be nearly 500 fewer inmates in provincial jails now than a year ago, but Manitoba still has the highest incarceration rates for adults and youths in the country, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen says.

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There may be nearly 500 fewer inmates in provincial jails now than a year ago, but Manitoba still has the highest incarceration rates for adults and youths in the country, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen says.

In an interview Friday, Cullen said provincial prison populations are trending lower across the country.

"This isn't unique to Manitoba," he said.

Cullen denied that his department is depopulating provincial jails to save money. He said his department's budget increased by $12 million this year.

"Clearly, there's fluctuations in the numbers. We're certainly down from our high-water mark back in about 2016."

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen


Justice Minister Cliff Cullen

On Thursday, the Free Press reported that the province will close 56 beds at Milner Ridge Correctional Centre near Lac du Bonnet next month. The number of adult inmates in provincial jails fell to 2,111 on Aug. 27 compared with 2,591 on Sept. 1, 2017. This is occurring as crime rates in Winnipeg, and the province as a whole, are on the rise.

Cullen said the province will only be closing minimum-security beds at Milner. There are no plans, at present, to reduce capacity at any other jails, he said Friday.

What the province has done is beef up efforts to reintegrate low-security-risk offenders back into society, he said.

"To me, it's about providing individuals with the right resources. If we can get these people reintegrated into society, that's what it's all about."

The province launched the Responsible Reintegration Initiative last October, which allows for the release of eligible offenders into the community on a "temporary absence" up to 60 days before the expiration of their custody sentence. Program participants are required to serve their entire sentence, although a portion of it is now served in the community.

As of Aug. 31, there are 14 offenders in the community completing programming so that they can successfully reintegrate into society, the province says. There have been 128 participants in the RRI program this year. As of the end of last month, temporary absences have been revoked in only 13 cases.

Many offenders who have completed the program have secured employment and/or are completing education programs within the community, the government says.

While the justice minister said the lower prison population numbers are not the result of cost-cutting efforts, others aren't so sure.

One provincial corrections employee, who asked for anonymity, said youth offenders who violate parole conditions were treated more severely in the past. Now, they're getting a slap on the wrist.

"It's just shocking at times that somebody can have... multiple breaches on, say, theft charges, and they're in custody for a week and then they're released," the man said.

Those who breach parole are back in jail for such a short time that there is no time to provide adequate counselling, he said.

"You can't talk to them for a week because they're sleeping off what (drugs) they're doing, and then in another week they're out," he said.

Maurice Sabourin, president of the Winnipeg Police Association, said when incarceration rates are low, crime rates rise.

 Maurice Sabourin, Winnipeg Police Association president


Maurice Sabourin, Winnipeg Police Association president

"With more bad people out of jail, that's one of the reasons why we're saying that the (police) service needs more resources," he said Friday.

Sabourin said over the past 20 years there's been a reduction in sentences for everything from property crimes to violent crime. He said part of the reason may be "pressure from all levels of government to keep costs down."

He also said with hard deadlines now to provide alleged offenders with a court hearing, there's tremendous pressure placed on Crown attorneys, who are more likely to make deals with defence lawyers, resulting in less severe sentences.

No one from the Manitoba Association of Crown Attorneys could be reached for comment Friday.