Calls for the Saskatchewan government to consider releasing as many prisoners as possible to protect them from COVID-19 have been rejected by Premier Scott Moe and his corrections minister.
A petition calling for Saskatchewan's Minister of Corrections and Policing Christine Tell to resign over the government's handling of COVID-19 outbreaks inside Saskatchewan correctional centres was delivered to the legislature Friday. It included recommendations for a government apology, a release of as many prisoners as possible — including those on remand or nearing release — and adequate supports for those released.
In a tweet on Saturday, Moe stood firm on his position that the government would not be releasing "criminals that have been sentenced by a court of law."
A statement from Tell echoed Moe's statement.
It reads in part: "COVID-19 is not a get out of jail free card – It would be a disservice to victims and a breach of my duty to maintain public safety to grant leave to inmates who would not otherwise meet the stringent public safety criteria in place for early release...
Similarly, the Ministry of Corrections and Policing is not able to release remanded inmates. The decision to remand inmates is made by the courts after discussion between prosecutors, defence counsel, the judiciary and any other necessary parties.... It is important to note that, on average, 87% of remanded inmates have been charged with a violent offence."
Tell also said they would not "modify early release criteria to appease inmates or their advocates who see the pandemic as an opportunity for early release. To do so would minimize the experience of victims and be a serious breach in our duty to maintain public safety."
When a person is on remand, they have either had their bail denied or they are consenting to be held in a jail, but they have not been convicted of the crimes they are currently charged with, and they are presumed innocent.
There are 948 adults and 32 youths on remand in Saskatchewan right now.
Brady Knight, a criminal defence lawyer based in La Ronge, Sask., said reasons people may have had their bail denied can be something as simple as not having the resources to put a landline in their home, or something more complex like not having a residence to go to if released.
"At the end of the day, these are people too. We as a society have an obligation to treat individuals charged with crimes with dignity, with respect and in accordance with the Charter," he said.
There are three sections the court looks at when they're deciding if someone will be released on bail, and the broad categories essentially weigh these concepts:
Will the accused show up to court or are they a flight risk?
What's the likelihood of this person offending if they were to be released on bail? Will they endanger the safety of the public?
Will the release of this person have an impact on the public confidence in the justice system?
Knight said he thinks the province can help by investing more money and resources.
"Having financial security and having good social supports can go a long ways for a lot of these individuals, and I think would lead to situations where bail could be re-evaluated," he said in an interview. "There's still many individuals who are [in jail] and have been there for quite some time, and simply aren't able to be released because they don't have the privilege of having those resources in their life."
Knight said the court is having a hard time during COVID too, because the coronavirus keeps the court from travelling to remote communities. That's causing more people to have to stay in remand longer.
These problems can't be solved overnight, Knight said. People within the justice system can only do so much sometimes, he said.
He echoed the calls of many Indigenous leaders in the North who have long called for more affordable housing and better mental health support for their residents.
"While [these things] are present in some communities, [they] are certainly overwhelmed in many because there's so many individuals trying to access these sorts of services," he said. "It's those types of things that are going to assist people both in and out of custody."