Canada’s overcrowded jails full of “legally innocent” people: Report

by: Obert Madondo  | Published Wed. Jul 30, 2014

Canadian FlagA new study released last week by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) paints a grim picture of Canada’s justice system under the Harper Conservatives.

The study, entitled, “Set Up to Fail: Bail and the Revolving Door of Pre-trial Detention,” reveals that a majority of the 25,000 people currently held in Canada’s provincial and territorial jails are legally innocent. The report also “questions the extensive rise in pre-trial custody populations and identifies the extreme personal and financial costs of current practices in Canadian bail courts.”

“Despite a falling crime rate, the remand rate in Canada has nearly tripled in the past 30 years,” says the report, authored by Abby Deshman, Director of the Public Safety Program with the CCLA, and Nicole Myers, Assistant Professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Simon Fraser University (as of Fall 2014).

“Currently the majority of people detained in provincial and territorial jails are legally innocent, waiting for their trial or a determination of their bail.”

According to the report:

The remand rate has nearly tripled in the past 30 years, and 2005 marked the first time in Canadian history that our provincial institutions were primarily being used to detain people prior to any finding of guilt, rather than after they had been convicted and sentenced.

2005 marked the first time in Canadian history that our provincial institutions were primarily being used to detain people prior to any finding of guilt, rather than after they had been convicted and sentenced.

Pre-trial detention is widely recognized as one of the harshest forms of incarceration, and is frequently characterized by overcrowded cells, high security, regular lock-downs, and little to no education or programming.

Why are these people in jail? They are victims of many things, among them: a system that’s expensive and broken, racism, the Harper Conservatives’ draconian law-and-order agenda, and our collective disregard of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Canadians spend over $850 million on pre-trial detention, even though the majority of people who are jailed upon arrest are facing non-violent, minor charges,” said Abby Deshman, CCLA Program Director and co-author of the report.

“The law governing bail aims to safeguard individual liberty, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial by putting in place a strong presumption of release and only imposing restrictions on liberty or detaining a person where absolutely necessary,” the report says.

“Legally innocent individuals are processed through a bail system that is chaotic and unnecessarily risk-averse and that disproportionately penalizes — and frequently criminalizes — poverty, addiction and mental illness.”

Blacks and aboriginal peoples are disproportionately represented in our jails. Last year, the Toronto Star reported:

The Correctional Investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers, said in a report released Thursday that the aboriginal population has jumped 43 per cent in the last five years.

Today, aboriginal people make up 4 per cent of the Canadian population yet comprise 23 per cent of the prisoners — more than 3,400 in all — in federal corrections institutions.

And he found that aboriginal offenders are more likely to serve more of their sentence behind bars, be held in segregation or with maximum security populations and be disproportionately prone to self-injury while in prison.

In the meantime, a  study recently released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Save the Children Canada shows that over two and half indigenous children in Canada are more likely to live in poverty that non-indigenous children.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s report outlines a series of recommendations including:

  • Reinstating the presumption of unconditional release and innocence throughout the bail system;
  • Improving the efficiency of the bail process; drastically reducing reliance on sureties in the few jurisdictions requiring them; ensuring conditions on release are lawful, necessary, and achievable; and
  • Limiting custodial responses for breaches of conditions.”

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based progressive blogger, and the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive. Follow him on