No one saw these deep budget cuts coming
“If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.’”
As a columnist who has often written about how the court system in this province is far more accessible than many when it comes to allowing media coverage, it is with some irony that I write about how inaccessible our court system could become in the days ahead. And I don’t mean to the media, but to the public.
Why? Because the provincial budget cuts are crippling a system that was already overburdened, delaying the course of justice and limiting access to it for all but those with deep pockets.
Justice Minister Darin King was making the media rounds this week “to correct some falsehoods that are out there” and to avow that the justice system will be “just as strong going forward as it has been.”
It looks to me like the justice system is going backward, not forward. And the cuts made in the past few weeks contravene the provincial government’s own commitments to the system.
In 2010, retired Judge W.J. Baker delivered a report on adult probation services in the province. Among his findings he noted that, “After viewing many of the regional offices, one could rightly conclude that probation service must be extremely low on the government’s priority list.”
Just how low? Back then, Baker interviewed 49 adult probation officers and cited concerns about workload.
“It is recommended that adult probation officers caseloads be monitored on a regular basis by supervisors who have authority to assign or reassign cases as necessary,” he wrote.
Baker’s report was delivered to then justice minister Felix Collins, who acknowledged there were problems with the service.
“Adult probation services are an important and integral part of our justice system,” he said on April 18, 2011. “We will study this report in depth to determine how we can move forward to further strengthen this program.”
Strengthen the program? Not quite.
By 2012, there were only 37 adult probation officers, according to the Justice Department’s own annual report.
CBC reported this week that of those, “six are being laid off and two vacant positions will not be filled.”
That makes 29 — 20 fewer than when Baker was reviewing the service.
Also on the chopping block: Family Violence Intervention Court. King has defended that cut, saying on “Here and Now” Wednesday that only 10 people completed the program last year.
He revised that number Thursday, saying 21 people had done so.
But that’s not the whole picture. According to the Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador Annual Report, 45 people agreed to participate in Family Violence Intervention Court in 2011-12. By the end of the fiscal year, four had withdrawn from the program, 22 had completed it, while another 19 were at various stages of the process.
Just last year, the provincial government seemed to recognize that the justice system needed bolstering, not pruning. Here’s an observation from the Justice Department’s annual report for 2011-12.
“The province’s economic prosperity in recent years and the evolution of mega projects has created many opportunities for our citizens and positive development in the justice system. However, such development also results in an increased presence of organized crime. … When police responses are increased, a domino effect is created throughout the entire system. This creates workload and recruitment issues in an already busy system. Innovation will be key in planning responses.”
The planned response thus far?
Cut the number of sheriff’s officers. Cut the number of Crown prosecutors. Cut the number of probation officers. Diminish the Legal Aid Commission. Eliminate the electronic monitoring program.
At least one court case has already fallen through the cracks for lack of anyone to prosecute it.
What this means — if we are truly interested in correcting falsehoods here — is that people who need a lawyer will have a harder time finding one they can afford. People facing charges will face a longer wait to have their case heard in a courtroom that will now be less safe because there are too few sheriff’s officers to run the recently beefed-up security system. Lawyers and the sheriff’s officers themselves have said so.
It also means people could be sent to prison who might otherwise have been given conditional sentences, and people who have been released from prison may not have easy access to a probation officer. Probation officers themselves may be at increased risk of harm because there won’t be enough of them to watch each other’s backs — a safety measure Baker strongly recommended in his report.
In an introduction to the Justice Department’s Strategic Plan 2011-2014, then minister Collins noted, “In recent years, the Department of Justice has received tremendous support in providing more progressive and responsive services to the citizens of this province. I am committed to maintaining this momentum as we embark on his new strategic blueprint.”
So much for commitment. So much for momentum.
You actually have to wonder if anyone in cabinet reads government reports or news releases.
On Dec. 9, 2011, Collins was trumpeting the fact that “the provincial government invests over $1 million annually for the continued operation and proactive work of the Human Rights Commission.”
By 2012 that investment was $845,000. In Budget 2013, the office was allotted $670,000 and the number of staff has dwindled from 11 to six.
Think your human rights have been violated? Expect delays.
The truth is, this government has betrayed its own commitments to the public and effectively diminished the justice system.
In the Justice Department’s strategic plan, the government made this promise: “Goal 1: By March 31, 2013, the Department of Justice will have implemented select initiatives that demonstrate commitment to public trust and confidence.”
The reality? On March 26, 2013, the justice system in this province was manacled. Stripped down. Gutted.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at