Fewer people are being jailed in the Winnipeg Remand Centre after their arrest in the effort to keep Manitoba jails free of COVID-19, and the measure has not jeopardized public safety, a defence lawyer says.
There have been no COVID-19 cases in Manitoba jails during the pandemic. Prosecutors, police and defence lawyers have made changes to ensure it remains that way.
After-hours bail programs have sped up the process for people arrested at night in Manitoba, although most of them haven’t avoided being sent to jail even with the provincial restrictions in place on admissions to the Winnipeg Remand Centre jail.
Since the beginning of April, roughly 25 per cent of people arrested between 4 p.m. and 7 a.m. in Manitoba were released soon after being charged in cases where Crown prosecutors agreed they shouldn’t be jailed while waiting for their day in court, data from Legal Aid Manitoba shows.
'The negotiation is still as tough as it has ever been. I mean, they're not sacrificing public safety, I can tell you that'‐ Amado Claros, Winnipeg defence lawyer, on how the pandemic has not necessarily meant easier bail
Some defence lawyers who spoke to the Free Press said the after-hours bail programs and 24-7 availability of on-duty Crowns and defence lawyers are effectively speeding up the release process for people who would likely have been granted bail anyway.
"From my perspective, it is getting people out faster," said defence lawyer Zilla Jones, who has done overnight duty.
Police are not allowed to take newly arrested suspects directly to the remand centre to await a bail hearing. They must be held in police custody until they have a chance to have a telephone hearing with a judge or judicial justice of the peace. In April, knowing most Manitobans who are detained at the remand centre are released on bail within a week, Manitoba Justice stopped allowing people to be locked up at the remand centre unless directed to do so by a judge or JJP.
Inmates are being isolated in the remand centre for two weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic before they can be transferred to other provincial jails.
About 50 per cent of remand centre inmates are released within seven days, Manitoba provincial court chief judge Margaret Wiebe wrote in a public notice from the court in April. Such short stays could increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.
As a result, evening and overnight bail programs now require Crown and defence lawyers to be on duty to handle criminal charges that come in between 4 p.m. and 7 a.m., Monday to Friday.
According to Legal Aid Manitoba data as of May 12, 111 people were released with the consent of Crown prosecutors. That avoided the need for bail hearings or remand centre stays.
Another 73 per cent — 323 people — were remanded into custody after being assisted by on-duty lawyers in the evening or overnight. No one had a contested bail hearing during the overnight or evening bail programs. A JJP is available until 11 p.m., but not overnight. Those who were remanded likely opted to prepare for a bail hearing at a later date after learning the Crown would oppose their release, Jones said.
Amado Claros, another one of the Winnipeg defence lawyers who has worked overnight, said the triage-like program has "reduced the number of people, dramatically, from being brought to the remand centre."
There are fewer inmates in provincial custody on remand, Manitoba Justice said. There were 180 people in the remand centre as of May 29, compared with 279 at the end of February.
Crown prosecutors have been "reasonable," Claros said, when taking positions on who should be released or held in custody during this pandemic.
"The negotiation is still as tough as it has ever been. I mean, they’re not sacrificing public safety, I can tell you that."
Legal Aid’s after-hours bail-program figures don’t account for people arrested during the day. Neither Legal Aid nor Manitoba Justice tracks the total numbers of people being remanded into custody or released by consent of prosecutors. The data also doesn’t include people who are released at the discretion of police before getting involved in the court process.
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Police have always had the power to use discretion on whether to hold someone in custody. They can issue someone a promise to appear in court and release them on conditions after arresting them. Winnipeg Police Service officers have been instructed to avoid taking people to the police station because of the pandemic.
"Officers have been reminded that all arrested persons who are eligible for release should be released without bringing them to police stations to protect the health and safety of our members, our facilities and the prisoners themselves," Winnipeg Police Service spokesman Const. Jay Murray wrote in an email.
He said the inability to take arrested individuals directly to the remand centre, which is a provincial correctional facility, has created significant challenges. Police cells were built for short-term detentions, and they’re now holding people for longer periods of time, causing logistical concerns about providing food and medical care, as well as fulfilling Criminal Code requirements.
"While we are continuing to work with the stakeholders in the criminal justice system to implement the changes, the WPS has had to take drastic measures to adjust our operations to manage the risks and challenges that come with the suspension of the direct lock-up arrangements between the (police) and Manitoba Corrections," Murray wrote in an email.
Katie May Justice reporter
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Major provincial court offices in Manitoba will re-open as of June 1, but court sittings are still suspended in remote communities.
Courts in Winnipeg, Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Dauphin, The Pas and Thompson are set to resume out-of-custody cases, which require people who have been out in the community to attend court. Courts continued to deal with cases for people who were already in custody, but court dates for people who aren't in jail had been on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Courts are still closed to the public and officials are still trying to reduce the number of people who need to show up.
Circuit courts -- temporary court sittings that involve travel to remote communities -- will not restart in June, according to a recent notice from Manitoba provincial court Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe.
Many First Nation communities in which those circuit courts would typically be held are still locked down to non-residents.
The full notice can be found here: http://www.manitobacourts.mb.ca/site/assets/files/1966/notice_-_provincial_court_-_covid-19_-_reopening_courts_may_15_2020_-_e.pdf
Apart from the reopening, the provincial court decided to stop running weekend bail court sessions staffed by judges. Those weekend court sittings were added because of the pandemic, but "assessment of the additional weekend dockets has resulted in the conclusion that they are not achieving the anticipated outcome," according to a notice issued by Wiebe Thursday.
Weekend hearings were set to continue with judicial justices of the peace, rather than judges.
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