'We need to be better': Half of the people in Sask. jails are on remand

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Half of the people in Saskatchewan's overcrowded jails haven't been convicted.

They are on remand, still presumed innocent. They are in jail awaiting a sentence or a trial rather than being released on bail.

Since 1998, the number of people on remand has grown 97 per cent, said a government official, while the sentenced inmate population has only grown by three per cent.

"We need to be better," said Saskatchewan's deputy minister of corrections and policing, Dale McFee.

"Basically that becomes dead time and, you know, some of it's actually babysitting," said McFee.

He's been part of a team trying to find out how to tackle jail overcrowding caused by remand, but despite the hours spent on research, the data shows it won't be easy.

"There's no one bullet or one magic solution that fits all."

Double the cost

In Saskatchewan, someone remanded to custody costs taxpayers twice the amount of a sentenced inmate. The latter costs about $43,000 dollars per year, whereas those on remand cost about $80,000, McFee said. 

Overtime pay for correctional workers and the "churn in and out of court" are big parts of the cost, he explained.

"When you actually add that up, we spend the highest potential of our money on the least value."

Remand numbers fluctuate daily, so it's hard to pinpoint how many people are on remand — and why — on any given day. On March 22, 886 people were on remand and 874 people were sentenced to custody in Saskatchewan's four secure adult custody facilities, according to the Ministry of Justice.

The ministry is aiming to reduce the average length of a remand stay to 3.17 days from 6.35 by 2020. That's expected to decrease the remand population by 50 per cent by that year. As of Friday, the government could not say how much money or what resources are allocated in the 2017-18 fiscal year to reduce short-term remand stays. 

Remand a revolving door

Only 13 per cent of people who spend time on remand in a jail are sentenced to secure custody.

The remaining 87 per cent are:

- Found innocent.

- Given credit for time served.

- Receive a community sentence.

- Get a conditional sentence.

- Receive an intermittent sentence.

More than half of remanded people spend one to 14 days in jail, and 70 per cent of people on remand get out in less than a month's time.

"Remand is dead time, so individuals on remand don't have access to work or programming," said Jason Demers, who authored a report on overcrowding in Saskatchewan jails for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Demers said administration of justice charges "are a real culprit' when it comes to remand-induced overcrowding.

"These overcrowding issues have been longstanding and remand has been a large part of that and so it should be a real priority.

"When prisons are overcrowded, all resources essentially need to be allocated to housing inmates," he said, noting that means space reserved for educational, spiritual and rehabilitation programming is converted into sleeping quarters. ​

Furthermore, he said the system doesn't always recognize factors of crime like homelessness or addictions. 

He offered as an example that it's difficult to keep a dozen bail conditions straight if you have limited literacy skills.

"These aren't really people that are flight risks, but they're being treated as flight risks by a system that doesn't spend enough time looking at root causes."

Unintended consequences

There are consequences for having people who don't need to be in custody on remand. Low-risk offenders can become high-risk offenders when they spend time in jail.

In addition to worsening people's behaviour, experts say overcrowding removes the opportunity for programming and rehabilitation — which are meant to reduce recidivism — for those convicted.

At one point, the province considered building even more jails to house the remand population. McFee said that's no longer in the future for Saskatchewan.

"You're not looking at what's causing the crowding," he said.

"Then, really, you'll never stop it because you'll fill 'em and then you'll fill 'em and you'll fill 'em."

How did we get here

"Risk aversion" has played a large role in high remand intake over the years. That's why McFee wants the way police measure who is a threat to the public, a flight risk, or likely to reoffend to be reevaluated.

Remand is an effective tool to deal with violent and serious offenders, McFee said, but those make up just a small amount of the remand population. 

McFee said common charges that lead to remand include impaired driving, common assault or breach charges, meaning a person is charged for not complying with court-imposed orders. 

The high number of breach charges and the slow court system have directly contributed to the high remand population, he said.

How to solve the long-standing problem

McFee said the intake of remanded individuals needs to slow down and recidivism of convicted offenders needs to decrease.

He added those who are quick to incarcerate and the slow court systems need to be addressed as well.

He said this goes beyond policing and enforcement and can't be changed unless it's addressed by all parties involved, including judges, lawyers, correctional staff and community workers. 

He points to an old phrase of his, "smart on community safety," as the solution to high remand numbers. It would mean using remand to protect the public from serious offenders and finding alternatives for everyone else. 

McFee doesn't think going totally soft on crime is the answer, but neither is going hard on crime, a punitive approach that often involves mandatory minimum sentences. That's because the arrest-and-incarcerate model can result in more people held in custody for low-risk offences rather than being released on bail. 

Furthermore, McFee said data doesn't support a relationship between increased incarceration and reduced crime rates.

Just how his smart on community safety approach will be tangibly implemented remains to be seen.