Crown prosecution crisis impacts rural justice

·6 min read

Hinton’s crown prosecution office is in a much better position compared to others across the province, but the Alberta Crown Attorney’s Association (ACAA) says many local victims are still not seeing justice served for rural crimes.

The ACAA believes the province’s Crown prosecutors are overworked, burnt out, and are subject to less support and lower wages than in other Canadian jurisdictions.

Province-wide there are 47 vacancies out of 378 positions with 1,200 serious cases at risk of being stayed, Dallas Sopko, president of the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association (ACAA) told the Voice. In provincial court, trials must be heard within 18 months to avoid being stayed, halting legal proceedings. Hinton’s crown prosecution office has been fortunate in terms of turnover within the last five years, due to the strong senior leadership, he added. Currently Hinton has one recent vacancy out of six positions.

“Hinton is just in a lucky position right now where they’ve got stability, but I can tell you that that’s an anomaly province-wide,” Sopko said.

“Despite the fact that things are relatively good there, there are a lot of victims being denied their day in court and rural crime is still rampant in many of those areas.”

Turnover in other regional offices is much higher. In St. Paul, the average retention is about 16 months with only one of seven prosecutors who has been there longer than two years.

The impact of this retention issue is greater on rural offices compared to larger centres. One reason is that smaller offices already operate with fewer prosecutors and losing even two could mean losing a third of their staff, shifting more of the workload onto the remaining prosecutors.

Another reason is that the file loads per prosecutor tend to be substantially higher in regional areas with multiple trials set on one day. When shorthanded, that means not having sufficient time to prepare all files.

“An average file in provincial court can easily take between two to four hours to prepare and if you have six in court for trial and you have three days of trials every week, there’s just not enough hours in a day to properly prepare,” Sopko said.

In a survey done by ACAA with 100 of their members, 85 per cent of respondents said the outcome of their trials would have been different if they had more time to prepare and about the same number said that they sometimes attended court feeling underprepared. On top of that, 95 per cent expressed that they are burned out from the work they were doing.

Hinton’s prosecutors are currently handling 165 files each due to the recent vacancy. Across the province, the average number of files per prosecutor in provincial court is 125.

In Hinton, it’s normal to set as many as six trials per day, which means the office is triaging a large number of files that will never see the light of day due to the lack of resources, Sopko said.

Alberta’s triage practice protocol is designed to determine how and which files can proceed based on the seriousness of the crime.

This means some files are pushed back and face the risk of being stayed. Many matters that don’t make it to trial are being resolved with low offers.

“There are a lot of victims that are watching accused people not receiving jail sentences where they might if we had the right resources or being jailed as long as they should if we had sufficient resources,” Sopko said.

The underlying issue is that Alberta’s crown prosecution services are no longer competitive with other jurisdictions due to higher workloads, lower wages, and insufficient mental health support.

Crown prosecutors in B.C. earn 22.8 per cent more in the same position, those in Ontario make 25 per cent more, and prosecutors for the federal service can make 19 per cent more over their first 11 years in their career with better benefits, Sopko said. A large portion of prosecutors are gaining their experience in Alberta and moving on to other areas. This means a provincial prosecution service that’s becoming more and more junior as senior and experienced staff move on.

By good fortune, Hinton was able to retain several senior prosecutors but this wasn’t the case six or seven years ago. In the Edmonton office, 40 per cent of their office has been there for less than four years, while in the St. Paul regional office, they recently lost 80 years of combined experience replaced by zero years of experience.

With less experience, junior staff take longer to do the work, adding more pressure to their workload.

“Sending someone brand new to handle a case, the outcome might not be the same as sending someone more experienced. For all those reasons, people in rural areas are being denied justice every day,” Sopko said.

The lack of mental health support for Alberta’s prosecutors puts them miles behind other provinces. Prosecutors in Manitoba have staff psychiatrists who are employed and paid for by their government and are trained to deal with prosecutors, understand the work, and know how to treat them. In Alberta, there is no built-in support system to ensure their employees health and productivity.

“We have some benefits through blue cross that covers three appointments per year,” Sopko said. The problem with that is that there’s no continuity and by the time a psychiatrist understands the issues, funding has run out and prosecutors are paying out of pocket. The province made a commitment over the last five years to add 50 new prosecutors, but in reality, there are still 47 vacancies.

“That means 94 per cent of that commitment hasn’t been met five years later,” Sopko said.

A spokesperson for the provincial government did not respond to questions regarding their commitments and future actions prior to the Voice deadline.

Sopko noted that until the government addresses the root causes of the problem, the fact that Alberta is no longer an attractive place to work, this crisis is never going to change.

“I think the government is playing a dangerous game and at some point in time the ball is going to drop on a big file, because somebody who is under prepared and inexperienced is going to be asked to take on something they shouldn’t and there’s going to be a real serious consequence and it’s scary and it’s unfortunate that’s where we’re at,” he concluded.

Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice

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