More than half of inmates in territorial jails haven’t been tried or sentenced for a crime, new data from Statistics Canada shows.
In Canada’s provincial and territorial jails, two types of inmates are held: offenders serving a sentence of less than two years, and inmates waiting to be tried or sentenced for a crime.
Of the 13 provinces and territories, eight house more remanded inmates than sentence-serving inmates – and the NWT is one of them. Coming in at the sixth spot, below Nova Scotia but above the Yukon, 57 per cent of inmates in NWT correctional facilities are remanded inmates, the Statistics Canada report reveals.
The recent numbers follow a growing trend and paint a picture of a widening gap between populations of remanded and sentence-serving inmates. Nationwide, the number of inmates in remand custody jumped three percent in 2016-17 compared to the year before, and ballooned seven per cent from 2012-13.
On the other hand, the average number of inmates in sentenced custody dropped four per cent from 2015-16, and plunged 13 percent from 2012-13.
The imbalance is a symptom of a flawed criminal justice system, according to non-profit advocacy and justice reform groups like the John Howard Society. The society sees soaring rates of remanded inmates as a clog in an already inefficient criminal justice system – and an affront to the presumption of innocence.
“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars detaining legally innocent people every year,” stated a report from the society’s Ontario chapter. “Jails are overcrowded … prisoners (are) mostly on remand … at a time when crime rates are lower today than ever. There is something wrong with this picture.”
With bail hearings – and bail denials – adding to the number of remanded inmates, the society’s report recommends “well-reasoned” bail hearings to reduce the influx of remanded inmates.
The report also advocates for a strengthened emphasis on the presumption of innocence and the “right not to be denied bail without cause.”
Comment from the John Howard Society of NWT couldn’t be obtained by press time.
The Statistics Canada report, released June 19, stated the rising number of remanded inmates in provincial and territorial jails also has an impact on the delivering programs.
“Correctional services programs face challenges providing services, such as rehabilitation and housing, for an increasing population of remanded individuals because of uncertainty regarding their length of stay,” read the report.
Kim Schofield, assistant deputy minister with the GNWT Department of Justice, told News/North there’s many factors at play in the rising numbers of inmates in remand custody.
“Jurisdictions across Canada have struggled to address the growth of the remand population, There is a national trend whereby remand numbers are increasing. This is also true in the NWT with approximately 50 per cent of persons in custody on remand currently,” stated Schofield in an email.
She said remand numbers can spike after multiple arrests “on drugs busts or when people have breached their release conditions.”
While the Criminal Code sets the conditions under which a defendant can be detained in remand, Schofield said it’s up to the courts to decide whether a person is held on remand. Attempts to ensure defendants appear in court and efforts to protect the safety of the public are considered in deciding whether someone should be granted bail, Schofield added.
But GNWT officials say the government is trying to reduce the number of remanded inmates housed in its jails.
The department participates in federal/territorial working groups to gather cross-country statistical evidence and develop recommendations on changes to policy, procedures and potential legislative reform, and that could help reduce the housing of offenders on remand, stated Schofield.
Statistics Canada’s report also highlighted the continued over-representation of incarcerated Indigenous offenders across the country. Nationwide in 2016-17, adult Indigenous inmates made up 28 percent of admissions to territorial and provincial jails, despite representing only about five percent of Canada’s population.