Are We Safer With Fewer People In Jail? COVID19 Highlights Issues With The Incarceration Of Non-Violent, Low Risk Inmates

by Ryan Alkenbrack
Judges gavel like those used in sentencing people to provincial jails in Ontario

As the COVID19 pandemic drags on and we approach six months since the last time Ontario courthouses were open to the general public, it is worth reflecting on what the lasting effects of the pandemic will be on the justice system.  In previous posts, the Bonn Law blog has addressed the technological changes that COVID19 has forced upon the justice system. Physical distancing measures have forced lawyers and to embrace video conferencing, digital document exchange and other much needed reforms.

Another lesson that we can learn from the COVID19 pandemic is the necessity of releasing nonviolent offenders prior to trial.

A significant percentage of the provincial jail population have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Most inmates in provincial jails (approximately 70%) are on remand, meaning that they are in jail awaiting their trial or guilty plea, and are therefore legally innocent of the crime that they are charged with.  The majority of this group are facing non-violent charges.  Right now, because of COVID19, this presents a particular problem.

Overcrowding in jails poses a public health concern in light of COVID19.

Suffice it to say the physical distancing in jails is impossible.  Inmates are typically held two or three to a cell the size of small bedroom.  Because of concerns about overcrowding in jails facilitating the spread of COVID19 and therefore constituting a wider public health concern, a number of measures have been put into place to actively reduce the provincial jail population.  For example, Crown Attorneys have consented to the release of low risk individuals and regulatory changes have expanded correctional facility superintendents’ powers to grant temporary absence passes and to allow for remote parole hearings.

Health and safety measures implemented to reduce the jail population have not contributed to an increase in crime.

Since March of this year provincial jail population counts have fallen 31 per cent—from what was typically around 8,000 prisoners on any given day to under 6,000. During the same period, there has been no measurable uptick in crime. 

COVID19 may serve as a test to prove what a number of experts have been saying for some time: jailing non-violent and low risk individuals harms rather than helps society.  It is possible to reduce the jail population without sacrificing public safety thereby reducing the costly and often counterproductive results of incarceration.