Reduce prison populations to fend against COVID-19 disaster: defence lawyers

Red Deer defence lawyers and Crown prosecutors working to reduce Remand Centre population

Reducing Red Deer’s crowded remand centre population is urgently needed to guard against a COVID-19 outbreak, says an association representing local defence lawyers.

This week, the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association and Alberta Prison Justice Society urged authorities overseeing jails and prisons to reduce the number of inmates to avoid a “catastrophic” outbreak of the deadly virus.

Red Deer Defence Lawyer Association president Jason Snider said local lawyers feel the same way and have already been working with Crown prosecutors to allow more people accused of less serious crimes to get out of remand centre custody under strict release conditions.

Suitable candidates for release include those detained for non-violent offences, medically vulnerable inmates and those with less than 90 days to serve.

“For exactly those type of people we are approaching the prosecution service and the prosecutions service has been largely open to those kinds of discussions,” said Snider, a former Red Deer Crown prosecutor.

“We really want to reduce the burden on the remand system,” he said. The remand centre houses accused who have not yet been sentenced and possibly sent to other prisons such as Bowden Institution.

“Alberta actually has a very high percentage of people on remand compared to other jurisdictions in Canada.

“We’re doing what we can to try to reduce that. It also allows really enables the remand centre to deal with social distancing and making the spread of those kinds of diseases in the institution much more manageable.

“If they are jammed to capacity and they’re double- and triple-bunked, how do you keep people away from each other?”

Crown prosecutors have been issued a directive to be more open than usual to options such as house arrest for those who are not a danger to the community and are waiting to deal with their charges, he said.

“Obviously, people who are danger to the community, people who are charged with murder — we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about people charged with property offences or lesser crimes that can be managed in the community given the extent of the isolation going on across society.”

The court system has already taken sweeping steps to reduce the number of cases and people in court, whether accused, lawyers or witnesses.

All but the most important court matters have been sidelined with sittings suspended and the public urged to stay out of courthouses unless they need to be there.

Some central Alberta courthouses, Rocky Mountain House, Stettler and Rimbey have been shut. Red Deer courthouse remains open for urgent and in-custody business only.

Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench is limiting hearings to urgent or emergency matters. Emergency matters are defined as “those in which serious consequences to persons or harm to property may arise if the hearing does not proceed, or if there is a loss of jurisdiction or expiration of an existing protection or restraining order.”

In provincial court, all matters where no one is in custody are automatically adjourned for 10 weeks from the date set for the next court appearance.

In-custody matters, such as bail hearings, sentencing, preliminary inquiries and trials, and youth criminal sentence reviews are going ahead.

All provincial court civil matters have been adjourned indefinitely and family courts are dealing only with the most urgent issues, such as cases where a child or other person is at risk.

Traffic court is also closed. Those who want to fight their ticket or want more time to pay have to call the courthouse.

Trials can go ahead, but many are being adjourned or prosecutors and defence lawyers are working together to resolve more cases to avoid witnesses having to come.

How the already-backed-up court system will deal with 10 weeks worth of adjournments and delayed proceedings when restrictions are eventually lifted is unclear.

“It’s going to be challenging times and busy court days obviously,” he said.

And it will not be a return to normal for quite a while. COVID-19 will be around for some time and courts will have to find a way to avoid the packed courtrooms that were routine on docket days when dozens of people appeared before the judge.

“It should be interesting times in the court system.”



pcowley@reddeeradvocate.com

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