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Thirty-eight per cent of Her Majesty's Penitentiary inmates released; St. John's crime rate lower than this time last year

Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. TELEGRAM FILE PHOTO
Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. TELEGRAM FILE PHOTO

Some legal system professionals wonder if it's time to consider whether jail is appropriate for certain offenders



ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — With 38 per cent of inmates at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) released since mid-March and no spike in crime in the St. John’s area — in fact, a significant decrease in the crime rate over this time last year — some justice system professionals are questioning whether or not it’s time to take a look at other types of criminal sentences for non-violent offenders.

When a public health emergency was declared in this province March 18 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 140 inmates at HMP. As of Tuesday there were 87 inmates in the prison, with the rest released on a combination of temporary absences in response to the public health crisis, court-led processes like bail and scheduled time served.

Contrary to the fear of many online commenters when the province announced it would look at releasing some non-violent offenders in light of the pandemic, there’s been no increase in crime in the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's jurisdiction over the past month. The rate, an RNC spokesman told The Telegram Thursday, has decreased 30 per cent this month over April of last year.

“There was a lot of fear about doing this and some people were in a panic,” Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons said of the release of the handful of inmates as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We knew that the majority of that was unfounded, but it’s nice to show that it’s not the case. I’m very happy to see that the increase in releases has not led to any kind of increase in crime.”


"I’m very happy to see that the increase in releases has not led to any kind of increase in crime.”


Reviewing statistics from the RNC and the RCMP, Parsons said, the overall crime rate is about average, though the nature of alleged offences has changed. There have been fewer traffic offences, he noted, and fewer break-ins and less petty crime. He said the ongoing strict public health orders implemented by province in March would likely provide less of an opportunity for certain crimes, but a stronger likelihood for others.

“The fear is the possible harm that we can’t see, which is intimate partner violence,” Parsons said. “We’re fearful. We’re all worried.”

Without an established correlation between the number of prison releases over the past month and a lower crime rate, Parsons didn’t suggest the courts consider whether or not non-custodial sentences might be more appropriate for some offenders.

It’s something Rose Ricciardelli, a sociology professor at Memorial University specializing in corrections, has long questioned, however.

Prisons were essentially designed to house people who pose a threat to society, she said, though many inmates don’t fit that criteria.

“There’s no reason to incarcerate anyone who hasn’t engaged in violence or who isn’t a threat in that context,” she said. “I think we’re in a little bit of a reset right now, so maybe this is an opportunity to make that happen. If you have individuals in there for very minor offences or offences that are non-violent in nature, there should be a way to have a sanction that doesn’t involve prison.”


“The fear is the possible harm that we can’t see, which is intimate partner violence.”


According to Statistics Canada, at any given time in any given prison in the country, there are more inmates being held on remand awaiting trial or sentencing than are there serving sentences, and its been that way since 2004.

Many of them have been denied bail, says local lawyer Mark Gruchy, either because their past crimes are influencing their current situation, or because they lack the necessary supports, like housing or mental-health care, to come up with a bail plan that would see them released.

“There is a certain sub-population of the prison system that tends to be people in that kind of situation who frequently have substance abuse problems and other issues,” Gruchy said. “It creates a situation where they are in and out of the system largely as a result of their position in society and in their life and their inability to access appropriate support and services. A comprehensive and continuous system to absolutely minimize the relapse of substance abuse, for instance, doesn’t really exist. Clearly we have lots of support and systems which work to that end, but there are gaps, and people who are already in a very vulnerable position are being expected to do some of this on their own.”


"There’s no reason why we should have a system that includes so many breaches.”


A look at the provincial court docket on a weekday reveals a significant number of people charged with breaching various court orders. It’s not that the courts are setting offenders up to fail by imposing these orders, which often include curfews or staying away from drugs or alcohol, for instance, Gruchy and Ricciardelli agree. Such conditions are imposed with good intentions and could serve, in an ideal situation, as good structure. The issue lies with conditions that don’t take an offender’s personal situation into account. Abiding by a curfew might be difficult if a person uses public transport to get to and from work, for example.

It’s something the courts have been known to consider — a person who acknowledges having an issue with alcohol might be banned from consuming it outside their home instead of altogether in certain cases, for instance — but Ricciardelli is calling for a more tailored approach all-around.

“I think the challenge is what the condition actually means in that person’s life, and it’s not always thought out in that context. I think we need greater situational awareness. There’s no reason why we should have a system that includes so many breaches.”

Parsons acknowledges a need for more support for offenders, and said co-operation between his and other relevant government departments is ongoing in that regard. Changes have been made, he noted, and others take time.

“We’re getting there,” he told The Telegram. “Some of the things that have been set up over time, we realize are not conducive to helping people get out of the cycle. If you’re released and you’ve got no housing, you’re unable to get income support because you’ve got no address. But you can’t get an address until you have income support. These are the things we think about and this is, sadly, not isolated to people who are incarcerated.

“We’re working on it and I’m happy with the steps we’re taking, but this is not an issue that gets dealt with overnight.”

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