'State of continual crisis': Alberta Crown prosecutors overworked, understaffed

Hundreds of Alberta Crown prosecutors are dealing with never-ending staff shortages, frozen wages, unpaid overtime and crushing workloads. 

There’s 'a revolving door' of people leaving, says the association president

Inside an Edmonton courtroom. (Cort Sloan/CBC )

Crown prosecutor Dallas Sopko can't remember the last time he had an entire work-free weekend. 

From Monday to Friday, he's usually double or triple booked, and it's typical for him to be in court five days a week. There's a constant scramble to handle the relentless workload. 

"You go home at the end of the day around suppertime from being in court one day and you're cramming and preparing for what you have coming up the next day," Sopko told CBC News.

"It's common for Crowns in the regions to be working both days on the weekend, and to be working multiple evenings during the week."

Sopko has been a prosecutor for more than eight years in the Edmonton rural and regional response office, responsible for covering courthouses in Stony Plain, Sherwood Park, St. Albert, Morinville, Glenevis, Evansburg and Mayerthorpe.

He's one of hundreds of Alberta prosecutors currently dealing with never-ending staff shortages, frozen wages, unpaid overtime and crushing workloads. 

"It's a state of continual crisis," said Damian Rogers, president of the Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association. "The stress levels of everybody in the office in Edmonton where I work are very high. And they're higher than was the case when I arrived to that office. Demonstrably so."

The association just lost a bid for union certification after asking the Alberta Labour Relations Board to form an independent bargaining unit. 

At a hearing last December, association members testified they were forced to apply for certification because the government refused to bargain collectively or negotiate with them on workplace issues. 

"We believe that it was important for Crown prosecutors to have their own bargaining unit," Rogers said. "Because of the independence the Crown prosecutors are expected to have."

Prosecutors were not interested in joining the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

"We didn't think it would be appropriate for Crown prosecutors to be part of the same bargaining unit that represents sheriffs, correctional peace officers, fish and wildlife enforcement officers, probation officers and a number of other participants in the justice system," said Rogers, who has worked with the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service in Edmonton for more than eight years.

Damian Rogers is president of the Alberta Crown Attorneys' Association. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Crown prosecutors in British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are members of separate bargaining units. The Manitoba Association of Crown Attorneys is the certified bargaining agent for six branches of government lawyers. 

"Alberta is the largest province in which there isn't a collective bargaining relationship between prosecutors and the employer," Rogers said. 

The association may seek judicial review of the labour board decision. Meanwhile, Alberta Crown prosecutors have no collective agreement. 

'We're losing experienced people who are burned out' 

Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer recently told the legislature there were 25 vacant prosecutor positions the government hoped to fill immediately. He has also promised money to create an additional 50 positions over the next three fiscal years.

As of September 2018, there were 351 Crown prosecutors employed by the Alberta government, the LRB decision noted.

"It's a complete struggle right now for our employer to fill the vacancies that currently exist, never mind meeting their commitments in the future to hire additional Crowns," Sopko said. 

All cases scheduled for the Edmonton courthouse are listed on these electronic boards. (Cort Sloan/CBC )

"There's a revolving door of people both in the city and the regions leaving. We're losing experienced people who are burned out or choose to work somewhere else. We have situations where files that are set for trial in only a couple of weeks are being reassigned as prosecutors have left. We're just scrambling to keep those court dates covered." 

Prosecutors in the regional Crown offices face their own challenges. 

"The average years of experience prosecuting is two to three years across the office," said Sopko. "It's not fair to them and it's not really fair to the justice system or Albertans to expect them to handle the caseload that they handle, and the serious and complex nature of those cases."

According to the LRB decision, Alberta prosecutors currently make between $81,000 and $191,000 annually. There has been a freeze on moving up the salary scale with merit increases since April 2015. In a letter sent last week, that freeze was extended until March 2020. 

Rogers and Sopko say their colleagues often quit because they can make more money working in another province, with the federal Crown or as private counsel.

Current conditions have forced prosecutors to accept guilty pleas to lesser offences, in order to keep the system running smoothly, Rogers and Sopko say. At times those convicted of crimes have received shorter sentences, because the only other option would have been adjournments that would have risked exceeding the so-called Jordan timelines, imposed by the Supreme Court of Canada in a 2016 landmark decision.  

Sopko estimated that 1,100 stays were issued in 2017 due to Jordan timelines; of those, 800 were in rural locations.

'Better security at some bars and lounges'

Both prosecutors say they have safety concerns.

In 2015, Sopko appeared in Stony Plain court for the trial of a man charged with serious violent offences. During an adjournment, the accused pulled out a razor blade he had smuggled into the prisoner's box. 

Dallas Sopko has been a prosecutor with the Edmonton rural regional response office for more than eight years. (Peter Evans/CBC)

"He took that razor blade and he slit his throat in open court," Sopko said. "The accused almost died on the floor in the courtroom."

Quick intervention saved the man's life. A few months later, his trial went ahead in Stony Plain without any additional security measures. 

"That happened in Stony Plain, which has better security than a lot of the other places," Sopko said. "It seems unfair that there's better security in some bars and lounges in downtown Edmonton than there are in courthouses in places like Morinville and Evansburg and Mayerthorpe, and other courthouses all over the province."

Sopko said he has been put into "unnerving" situations at some rural courthouses where everyone uses the same entrance.  

"So we're standing on the front steps with the people we're going to be prosecuting in 20 minutes, sometimes seeking federal sentences if they're convicted," he said. "And we're standing outside with their friends and their families and associates, waiting for the courthouse to open." 

A prosecutor was threatened and assaulted outside the Edmonton courthouse by a complainant in May 2018, the labour board decision said. Criminal charges were laid and the prosecutor has since seen her alleged attacker at the courthouse.

Alberta Justice did not respond to a request for comment about the prosecutors' concerns.

Despite all the problems and challenges, Rogers said he remains committed to continuing his work.

"I wouldn't recommend this job to a colleague right now, if someone from the defence bar was thinking about becoming a prosecutor," Rogers said.

"The work is great," he said. "There's just too much of it."


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston was an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father.