A program hardly used before the pandemic has seen a massive increase in Alberta offenders who are sentenced to weekends in jail, serving their time at home, CBC News has learned.
In September, 70 per cent of people handed intermittent sentences by a judge were serving their time at home, under conditions, compared to 13 per cent in September 2019, according to numbers provided by Alberta Justice.
In Canada, the criminal code allows for certain offenders sentenced to 90 days or less to serve their imposed jail time over certain days of the week, most often weekends.
Typically, an inmate would show up at a jail on a Friday evening and leave Monday morning, getting four days' credit toward their sentence.
The Temporary Absence Program (TAP) has been around for decades and was established under the Corrections Act.
Although eligibility criteria has not changed, now, because of the pandemic, the provincial government is fast tracking TAP applications which allow people to serve their intermittent sentences at home.
"As a measure to minimize the potential for the spread of COVID-19 in centres, the application review timelines have been expedited," said Katherine Thompson, spokesperson for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General.
In September 2019, there were 131 people serving intermittent sentences in Alberta. Of those, 17 had been authorized to participate in TAP.
This September, 87 offenders were sentenced to weekend jail stints and of those, 61 were serving at home instead of being required to show up at a jail or remand facility.
Serving at home 'makes sense': Lawyer
A person who successfully applies for TAP will be placed on conditions and is still considered to be "in custody," according to the Act.
Keeping people from moving back and forth weekly between jails and the community during a public health crisis makes sense, says defence lawyer and criminal law instructor Kelsey Sitar.
"I think it's consistent with what we'd expect our government to be doing to be minimizing the number of infections we're seeing and keeping our hospital beds available for the folks who really need them," says Sitar.
"It makes sense that if the public can be safe with those folks serving their weekends on essentially house arrest, locked in their homes, that at a time like this that's what we would do."
Sitar points out COVID-19 is known to spread in congregate living facilities at a much higher rate.
There have been numerous outbreaks at the province's remand and correctional facilities since the beginning of the pandemic prompting a call from the Alberta Prison Justice Society for 'urgent action' last November.