Alberta parole board heard fewer than 100 cases in its first 15 months
Chair says board members paying close attention to local decisions, successful release plans
The Alberta Parole Board has reviewed 96 applications since it was created 15 months ago, contrasting with thousands of Alberta cases handled by the federal parole board in a similar timeframe.
The Alberta Parole Board was a United Conservative Party election promise – one of several proposed changes aimed at giving Albertans more local control over matters within provincial jurisdiction.
Rick Hanson, chair of the provincial parole board, says despite the small caseload, Albertans are getting good value from the $680,000 of public funds annually.
"If you're getting thousands of applications … do you have the time to look at those files with thoroughness, and do you really know the programs that are available?" Hanson said in an interview in Edmonton last month.
Between Feb. 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, the Parole Board of Canada reviewed 2,657 applications from Alberta offenders, or about 28 times the number of cases handled by the provincial body so far.
Board hears applications from provincial inmates only
In the 2019 election campaign, now-Premier Jason Kenney pledged an Alberta parole board would put Albertans — not a cadre of decision-makers from across the country — in charge of deciding whether inmates in provincial correctional centres were ready for early release.
Generally, offenders sentenced to less than two years in custody serve their time in provincial jails, and those sentenced to two years or longer go to federal prisons.
Inmates are eligible to apply for parole after serving a third of their sentence, and most qualify for statutory release after serving two-thirds of it.
Hanson says when they go to jail, provincial inmates get an information package explaining how they can apply for parole, if interested. Because provincial sentences are shorter, some are eligible in just days or weeks.
In his sales pitch to Albertans, Kenney said about 200 provincial inmates could qualify for provincial parole annually.
Ontario and Quebec also have provincial parole boards.
Kenney said a provincial board could handle applications more quickly than the federal board, and would be more transparent.
Alberta's justice department says it takes the provincial board an average of 96 days to prepare information packages about the inmate, and about eight days for a board panel to review the material and make a decision.
The Parole Board of Canada wouldn't provide an average wait time, but a spokesperson said the board must review a case within six months of an offender applying.
Hanson said the strength of the provincial system is the seven board members' familiarity with local treatment programs and communities.
About 10 per cent of Parole Board of Canada members are from Alberta.
Hanson said in the first year, the provincial board initially received 180 applications. Some inmates withdrew because they considered the conditions they'd be released under to be too restrictive.
One of the potential conditions is requiring a person to attend a residential addictions treatment program, he said. Four parolees so far have been subject to this condition.
Hanson said the board is tracking parolees over time to see who re-offended and who didn't, and what circumstances lead to successful reintegration.
Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, who previously served on the Parole Board of Canada, said the Alberta board is seeing about the volume of cases the government expected.
Although the government had initially hoped the federal government would pick up some of the cost, Shandro said those negotiations are ongoing.
Board has room to improve, defence lawyer says
Since the provincial board was created, two-member panels have approved 44 parole applications. Three people have since had their parole revoked.
Criminal defence lawyer Ellen Sutherland, who represents some offenders applying for parole, is happy to see a provincial option taking shape. She also sees gaps that need filling.
Federal prisoners can apply for day parole, and many live in halfway houses, where they must stay each night, Sutherland said. Given that some provincial inmates struggle with homelessness, the provincial parole system needs something similar to halfway houses, she said.
Although parole officers can help guide offenders through federal applications, Sutherland said that same support isn't available in provincial jails.
There are also no provincial parole board hearings — it's all paper-based — which Sutherland said could deter some from applying, and may disadvantage inmates who struggle with writing.
"A bigger focus needs to be on giving people a voice and not just relying on the words that they're able to write on a sheet of paper," she said.
About 45 per cent of recent federal parole applications from Alberta involved hearings with oral testimony, according to Parole Board of Canada data.
Decisions under wraps
Sutherland is also calling on the provincial board to release copies of its decisions. She's unsure what factors board members are using to weigh their choices, which makes it hard to advise clients, she said.
Shandro said members of the public can apply to the justice department to see copies of individual decisions — a system similar to the federal, Ontario and Quebec boards.
Hanson said the parole board is considering anonymising and abbreviating decisions and posting them online to give the public more information about their work.
He said there are privacy implications, and didn't commit to a timeline.
Temitope Oriola, a University of Alberta sociology professor, said the board should proactively publish decisions and their rationale online.
"They need to have public confidence," he said. "And one of the ways to do that is radical transparency when it comes to their decision-making process."
Irfan Sabir, justice critic for the Opposition NDP, said the provincial parole board appears to have had little influence on reducing crime in the province. He pointed to a spate of homicides in Calgary and high-profile hate crimes as bigger priorities.
"This government made a big show out of it, that they are taking big steps relating to the justice system that will somehow help Albertans," Sabir said. "But what Albertans are telling us, what we hear from them, is completely different."