Publisher Paul MacNeill

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While other jurisdictions tweak justice systems to provide a safer environment for prisoners and those charged with crime, PEI’s old school approach nets overflowing provincial jails, a backlogged docket and rising concern for the potential impact on the incarcerated.

COVID has challenged delivery of every public service, with justice being near the top. It’s dependent on paperwork, in person court sessions, and the timely dispensation of justice. The thing about COVID is it doesn’t care about judicial protocol or tradition. It doesn’t discriminate. Prince or pauper, young or old, male or female, judge or criminal. All are potential virus targets, the transmission of which increases exponentially when people are jammed together like sardines in places like the Provincial Correctional Centre.

By government’s estimation, the rate of accused offenders remanded in custody is 34 per cent higher than last month. Accused are remanded when awaiting sentencing or ordered held until appearing for trial. One non-government estimate pegs the actual number of remanded at roughly 75 of the 110 jail capacity. That’s a lot of wishful conviction thinking.

Chief Provincial Court Judge Nancy Orr believes the solution lies in creating more prison space. She argued, in a CBC story, that, with a backlog of hundreds of cases, access to more cells is needed to ensure those convicted meet their ‘obligations to society.’

Maybe what’s really needed is for the judicial system to ask a different question: Are there other more effective ways to deal with those charged with crime?

Judge Orr has a long-established reputation as a strong proponent of jail time as punishment, especially relating to offences like impaired driving. But even assuming space in existing Island facilities is found, it’s unlikely to have much impact. The only way to substantively deal with the backlog is to stop sending so many people to jail, especially when they haven’t been convicted of anything.

If we know provincial jails are full, yet we keep charging, remanding, prosecuting and incarcerating as the primary form of justice, who is the system serving? It’s not the public. And it certainly is not the people charged with criminal activity.

Is there a better, holistic means of meting justice that relies less on courtrooms and jail cells?

We are not talking serial killers here. The vast majority held in PCC are there for fairly common, lowbrow forms of crime. If convicted they deserve punishment. How much prison time deserved is another matter. What’s more likely to reduce recidivism - extra days in jail or programs and services to deal with core issues of addiction, poverty, homelessness and mental health? It’s no contest.

COVID has changed how jails deal with prisoners. Newcomers must self-isolate for seven days, meaning they get first crack at a limited number of ‘wet cells’ with toilets and sinks. The system has limited capacity to deal with the type of surge in cases we are currently experiencing.

There are reports of deteriorating conditions within the Provincial Correctional Centre. Group classes, including rehab, that are aimed at improving the chance of succeeding on the outside, are cancelled or offered online or by appointment. The gym is closed. There are accusations of limited soap, towels and even shoes for prisoners. (The province says the jail has never been cleaner with enhanced cleaning protocols).

COVID has run like wildfire through many jails, impacting inmates, employees and the broader community. Jurisdictions, like Nova Scotia, released remanded prisoners with no negative consequence, although the number of incarcerated is once again creeping up. At the height of COVID PEI also released some prisoners.

Government hopes to alleviate some of the pressure by potentially adding 25 electronic surveillance bracelets to the system. It’s a start, not a solution.

No one can tell a judge what to do. It’s an important pillar of an independent judiciary. Long-term solutions - COVID isn’t going away anytime soon - will only come when Island judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, and police recognize the legal ways of yesterday are not sustainable during a global pandemic. It’s probably not good public policy regardless. If an addict can’t access support in a format they find most useful, then we are failing as a society. We can pat ourselves on the back for imposing a period of incarceration, but how does that make us safer while potentially exposing more to the virus?

COVID demands imaginative solutions. Justice is one area that rarely strays into the new - you still can’t pay a speeding ticket to the provincial court online. Turning your head to the reality of the outside world does not make the justice system better or fairer. Accused have a right to timely access to justice, a safe environment to serve their sentence and access to programs that can make them a better citizen. PEI’s judicial system needs to change to be part of the solution.

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