How weekend-only jail sentences can cause security risks, overcrowding

How weekend-only jail sentences can cause security risks, overcrowding

Every Friday, large numbers of people across Canada are obligated to report to the same place for the weekend: jail.

But the number of these weekend jail terms is increasing in some provinces — and critics are warning about overcrowding, and security stretched to the limits.

Quebec's ombudsman and Nova Scotia's auditor general both drew attention to the issue in recent reports, which advocates say are a by-product of Harper government sentencing reforms.

Canadian judges can impose intermittent terms when sentences are 90 days or less, involving people assessed as a low risk to society.

Michael Pickup, the Nova Scotia auditor general, used the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, the province's largest, as an example of what those working in the system complain about.

"You might have 50 people who are there for processing, who are there for the weekend," Pickup told a legislature committee last month. 

"That poses significant challenges to the staff in terms of doing assessments, getting them checked in, and at looking at the security."

Pickup's report noted that staff, rushing to process dozens of people, were found to have skipped steps in the admission process that could impact the safety of offenders and staff.

"The assessment involves considering factors ... such as age, previous crimes, and types of crimes committed to enable staff to assign a level of risk to the offender while in custody," Pickup wrote in his report.

In her special report on the issue in March, Quebec Ombudsman Marie Rinfret said the increase in weekend sentences had led to overcrowded jails, resulting in "difficult detention conditions and security problems."

Her report said that in 2016-17 the number of weekend jail terms had increased 91.5 per cent in six years in the province. Fully 14 per cent of admissions involved weekend-only prisoners in 2015-16.

Pickup's report cited a 2015 Justice Department analysis that found about 16 per cent of Nova Scotia offenders were serving weekend time.

That analysis noted that in much larger provinces such as Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, the use of intermittent sentences were much lower — ranging from two to eight per cent of the offender population.

Rinfret pointed directly to "certain amendments to the Criminal Code in the last 10 years."

"Everything points to the fact that the combination of several amendments to the Criminal Code by the federal government between 2008 and 2012 has contributed to the increase in intermittent sentences," Rinfret wrote in her report.

Jennifer Quaid, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, called that "a very plausible and probably very likely thesis."

Quaid said federal measures such as the 2012 Safe Streets and Communities Act had removed judicial discretion in certain serious crimes in favour of mandatory minimum sentences.

Previously, the ability to tailor a sentence to individual offenders was "to some extent" a defining feature of the Canadian legal system, she said.

"Removing that option means you do have people that do have to have time in prison," she said. "One way you can try to attenuate that is to have it (a sentence) served intermittently."

Quaid said without data, she can't say why the use of intermittent sentences is higher in provinces like Nova Scotia and Quebec, but she thinks "there are attitudinal differences across the country."

Emma Halpern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society Mainland Nova Scotia, said intermittent sentences are useful because they allow offenders to work and to have access to their families.

But she said they also come with "specific gender issues."

Women in Nova Scotia have to travel at their own expense every weekend to Halifax, where the sentences are served, she said.

They are also subjected to strip searches on arrival, which can prove traumatic for sexual abuse survivors. Halpern said women serving intermittent terms are also primarily held in isolation.

Sean Kelly, Nova Scotia's director of correctional services, said new security measures are on the way, including the installation of body scan units to help look for illicit drugs.

Kelly said alternatives to jail time are also being discussed through the province's Criminal Justice Transformation Group.

"Obviously we'd like to see lower numbers and we're hopeful the transformation group can assist in coming up with strategies that will reduce the population of intermittent offenders overall," Kelly said.

"I think the more we can do to reduce that population, the better it will be for correctional facilities."

Rinfret's report recommended fostering social integration programs, and pointed to supervised community-based work programs in Alberta and Ontario as examples of what can be done. Both programs have strict eligibility requirements.

Quaid said the reports contain food for thought for the wider justice system.

"I'm not sure the solution is obvious, but we can't just sit back and say yeah, this is fine," she said.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press