Edmonton

Alberta bill proposes end to arrests for transit fare, jaywalking scofflaws

The Alberta government wants to end the practice of throwing people in jail if they can’t pay fines for minor infractions, such as transit fare evasion or drinking in public.

Bill 9 also moves Alberta to e-ticketing system for minor infractions with fines less than $1,000

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley and acting Edmonton Deputy Police Chief Brad MacDonald look on as Chris Hay, executive director of the John Howard Society of Alberta, comments on Bill 9. (CBC)

The Alberta government wants to end the practice of throwing people in jail if they can't pay fines for minor infractions, such as transit fare evasion or drinking in public.

Bill 9, An Act to Modernize Enforcement of Provincial Offences, introduced Wednesday, also aims to introduce electronic ticketing. The government hopes it will streamline a workflow that sees court clerks and police officers entering data from paper tickets into two separate systems.

About 2,027 Albertans are jailed each year for minor offences, which costs the province a total of $73,000.

"We must work to stop the revolving door of poverty and incarceration," Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said. "Jailing people for being poor helps no one and harms all Albertans. It's inefficient and outdated."  

In one case, the outcome was tragic. Barry Stewart died when his cellmate at the Edmonton Remand Centre killed him by stomping on his head.

Stewart, 59, was fined for jaywalking and riding the LRT in Edmonton without proof of payment. He chose to spend five days in jail rather than pay $287 in fines.

Under the existing system, arrest warrants are issued when people don't pay their fines for these infractions. Police don't have the time to search for and arrest those people, so they are often found when an officer does a record check during a traffic stop.

Under the proposed law, people who don't pay their fines would be convicted in absence. The fines would be paid through a number of measures. The amount could be taken off a GST rebate or tax refund or garnisheed from wages or a bank account. A registry agent could refuse to register a vehicle until the fine is paid.

The government says the measures result in a much higher rate of compliance. Ganley said the current system doesn't work to stop the number of warrants from growing each year. 

Currently, there are 187,000 outstanding warrants, with about half for minor municipal and provincial offences.

Chris Hay, executive director of the John Howard Society of Alberta, said the old system criminalizes vulnerable people who aren't a danger to society. He said putting people in jail can make them more likely to commit crimes. 

"Ultimately, not having people involved with the system in this way, will actually create safer communities, believe it or not," he said. 

With an e-ticketing system, information that was previously entered into the law enforcement and court systems will now be entered electronically into both at the time the infraction is committed. Police and peace officers can issue a printed ticket from the cruiser.

The government thinks the change will save court clerks about 9,000 hours each year. Police officers will no longer have to go before a commissioner of oaths to swear the ticket. 

Acting deputy chief Brad MacDonald said Edmonton police support the changes, as many warrants are for these non-violent, minor infractions. 

"We can then actually redirect those scarce police resource hours to more pressing matters, such as serious prolific criminal offenders," he said. 

At this time, Ganley is unable to say when the measures will come into place, as the government will also have to make additional regulatory changes if the bill passes.