Nova Scotia records 192% jump in inmates presumed innocent and awaiting trial
'I think it's extremely problematic,' says executive director of Nova Scotia Legal Aid
A threefold increase over 10 years in the number of people awaiting trial while in Nova Scotia jails is "extremely problematic," says a legal advocate.
According to a Statistics Canada report released Tuesday, the daily average increased from 112.5 to 328.5 people between fiscal years 2004-2005 and 2014-2015.
The 192 per cent increase was the largest in Canada.
"I think it's extremely problematic because the people who are remanded are presumed innocent and have not been convicted of any offence," said Megan Longley, executive director of Nova Scotia Legal Aid.
One of the roles of a judge in a criminal case is deciding whether the accused should be granted bail or remanded to custody until their next court appearance.
Nova Scotia also had the highest proportion of inmates (68 per cent) who were in jail on remand in the country for 2014-2015, while P.E.I. had the lowest (16 per cent).
Ten years earlier, the figure for Nova Scotia was 38 per cent.
Bail conditions too hard to meet
Longley is concerned that bail conditions are too difficult for some people to meet and as a result, they wind up back in custody as they await trial.
In some of those cases, people are set up to fail, she said.
"People who are vulnerable economically or who have mental health issues or things like that are going to have a harder time coming up with a surety, someone who can be responsible for them."
But Jennifer Stairs, a spokeswoman for the Nova Scotia Judiciary, said bail decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and may include considerations such as the criminal history of the accused and their behaviour in court.
"If bail is granted, the conditions are supposed to be the least restrictive deemed necessary to ensure attendance in court and good conduct of the accused person, pending resolution of the matter," she said in an email.
The jump in people being held on remand has raised some eyebrows at Province House. Acting attorney general Michel Samson said the numbers will be discussed during the Justice Department's next meeting with the Public Prosecution Service.
He said the province will seek "a better explanation as to why the numbers here in Nova Scotia seem to be a bit higher than what we're seeing nationally."
He's not concerned at this point, he said, partly because the greater number of people on remand has not created additional pressures on the justice system.
Fewer criminal charges being laid in Nova Scotia
The increase in remand occurs against a backdrop of fewer criminal charges being laid in Nova Scotia. Annual reports by the Public Prosecution Service show that 40,700 charges were laid in 2014-2015, a decrease from 44,569 in 2006-2007.
However, during this time, the number of homicides and attempted murders has increased.
"Those kinds of very serious, violent offences make up a very small proportion of the people who are charged at all and certainly serving remand," said Longley.
She said most people on remand are there for property and drug offences, as well as breaching bail conditions.
A 2008 Statistics Canada document raised a number of concerns about increased remand numbers, including "overcrowding and increased safety risks for both staff and inmates; higher transportation costs as more prisoners make court appearances, and increased staff costs as more prisoners need to be supervised."
In an emailed statement, Nova Scotia's Justice Department said that overcrowding is not a problem in the province's jails.
"We've undertaken significant work over the past several years to improve safety, better support staff and reduce incidents," said spokeswoman Sarah Gillis.
She said there's been a 70 per cent decrease in major incidents.
The Statistics Canada data also showed the daily average number of people serving sentences in Nova Scotia's jails decreased from 185.4 in 2004-2005 to 155.8 in 2014-2015.