By Michael Spratt –
The problems at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre should be obvious – even to the most zealous tough-on-crime ostrich.
Over the past decade, the notorious Ottawa jail has earned a well-deserved reputation as a Dickensian hellhole. This is, after all, the same jail where guards stood by while a pregnant woman gave birth on the cold concrete floor of her jail cell; the same jail where the Ontario Ombudsman described guards brutalizing inmates then covering up that abuse with impunity; the same jail that is so overcrowded inmates were forced to sleep in wet shower cells; the same jail where inmates have literally gone insane while in segregation.
There is always a straw that breaks the government’s back and spurs action. In the case of the Ottawa jail, it seems that shower-jail-cells was one indignity too many for Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi and so he took definitive action – he ordered the preparation of a report.
That report, the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre Task Force Action Plan, was released Wednesday and sets out 42 recommendations to address systemic overcrowding and poor conditions at the Ottawa jail. Many of those recommendations are welcome but ultimately the recommendations – if ever implemented – merely address symptoms of a broken system.
Let’s take a step back and talk about the root cause of our jail problem – there are simply too many people in custody.
At a time of historically low crime rates, Canada has fallen in love with incarceration. Our provincial jails are bursting at the seams and there is one simple cause — an over-reliance on pre-trial incarceration.
But we knew this long before the new report.
The John Howard Society of Ontario’s 2013 report, Reasonable Bail?quite accurately concluded, “decisions made at various stages of the criminal justice system are increasingly influenced by organizational risk aversion.” And in a 2014 report, Set Up to Fail: Bail and the Revolving Door of Pre-trial Detention, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association recognized the problem of overly restrictive bail conditions and recommended that Crown policy manuals should be “revised to emphasize the presumption of unsupervised release for low-risk accused.”
In simple terms, Ontario’s Crown attorneys are seeking the pre-trial detention of too many people and seeking the imposition of onerous conditions when they do agree to release.
This is a huge contributing factor to jail overcrowding, inhumane jail conditions and ultimately a decrease in public safety.
More than half of Ontario’s jail population is made up of individuals awaiting trial. These prisoners on “remand” are presumed innocent and their numbers have doubled over the past decade. Shockingly, according to Statistics Canada, almost 70 per cent of these remanded prisoners are accused of non-violent offences.
These presumptively innocent offenders are not only denied liberty but they are denied rehabilitative programs and treatment. They come out – and they all eventually come out – worse then they go in. For that, our communities ultimately suffer.
So it is shocking that the task force report makes no recommendations that deal directly with our Crown prosecutors’ role in the sad state of our jails.
The task force did find that restrictive bail conditions should be examined but not all members thought restrictive conditions were a contributing factor to overcrowding at the jail. I wonder which members of the committee did not share that view?
Perhaps answer can be found in the comments of task force member and Ottawa Crown attorney Vikki Bair. “The Crown is ultimately not responsible for what bail conditions are imposed,” Bair said and then went on to say that she was not sure if she agreed there was even a problem of overly onerous conditions.
Bair is wrong and her statements misleading. Crown prosecutors are given discretion to agree or not agree to release an accused person and discretion over what conditions are imposed. Unfortunately, there are no recommendations that address problems with the use of Crown discretion.
Quite simply, if Crown’s is not using its discretion appropriately, then that discretion should be removed by ministerial directive or corrective legislation
Credit does need to be given to Naqvi. It takes courage to pull back the covers and examine serious, complex and uncomfortable issues. There are reasonable and good recommendations in the report to mitigate the damaging impact of overcrowding.
These recommendations only address the symptoms of a much larger problem.
It is tragic that the task force’s report did not do more to address the root causes of an inhumane correctional system, which warehouses too many people and offers no rehabilitative programming
At the end of the day, it may be hard to make real progress – despite minister Naqvi’s best efforts – when the government’s own lawyers have their heads in the sand.