Low-risk inmates released early through Manitoba's new probation model

Some Manitoba inmates will be getting out of jail a few months early as part of the province's latest steps in criminal justice reform.

Program rolled out Oct. 1 has already seen 33 releases; goal is 100 per year

Justice Minister Heather Stefanson says the new Responsible Reintegration Initiative will help prisoners get out and stay out of jails. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

In the last three months, 33 Manitoba inmates have been released early as part of the province's latest steps in criminal justice reform.

That's part of a newly developed provincial model for probation services that aims to help prisoners reintegrate into society more successfully, Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said on Tuesday. 

"[Manitoba has] among the highest incarceration rates in the country, among the highest crime rates in the country — so is the status quo really an option? No," Stefanson said at a news conference. 

She said the new approach, called the Responsible Reintegration Initiative, will see inmates who have been deemed low-risk get a temporary absence from custody so they can serve the remainder of their sentences in the community under supervision.

"We know that offenders completing community supervision reoffend at an average rate of 14 per cent, compared with those leaving custody, where recidivism hovers around 32 per cent," Stefanson said. 

If an inmate is released and left without any support, their chances of turning back to crime or addiction are much higher, she said. The hope is to connect inmates with housing, education, jobs and their families through the initiative, to increase the chances that they won't land back behind bars.

Unique plans for each inmate

The initiative currently involves eight employees, and four more will be added if they are required. The team will work with government and community organizations to create unique plans for each inmate.

The team will go into custody centres prior to an inmate's release to create a plan for when they are in the community.

Previously, the plan was only on paper — now, it will be in "real time," a provincial spokesperson said in an email to CBC News. 

Since Oct. 1, 33 inmates have been released as part of the new approach. The province's goal is to have 100 take part each year.  

"[We have] had some early successes but more work that needs to be done," Stefanson said. 

Staff members are being "realigned," the province said, from three specialized units — the gang response and suppression plan, auto theft unit and the anti-gang Spotlight unit — to staff the new initiative.

Stefanson said the other units will continue doing their work, which involves policing and probation services, and will also start working on the new plan for successfully reintegrating inmates into society. 

No extra funds are being dedicated to the initiative and no additional people are being hired.

'Ensure people have a better chance in life'

For people in the community who are concerned, Stefanson assured there is a lot of supervision and if the inmate breaches any conditions, "they go back into custody right away."

She said the program will "ensure people have a better chance in life" and "provide hope and opportunity for these people to survive in the community."

The province has been going through an overall review of the entire criminal justice system but Stefanson could not say when it would be finished. 

Over the summer, two organizations focused on helping Manitobans stay out of jail — the Elizabeth Fry Society Manitoba and the John Howard Society of Manitoba — received a 20 per cent budget cut from the province.

At the time, the Elizabeth Fry Society said the cuts would directly impact its bail-support program, which helps women who are in custody attain bail and provides supports to help them recover from addictions and get counselling. 

The cut also lead to the John Howard Society ending its bail residence program earlier this month. The program specifically helped people who are on remand and may not be able to get bail because they don't have a place to go in the community, the society's executive director told CBC News in November.

Last May, the province also announced it was eliminating Restorative Resolutions, a program that offered alternatives to keep Manitobans out of the overcrowded prison system.