$120M Saskatoon jail expansion for remand called a 'ridiculous' and 'strange investment'
Sask. remand numbers have been growing for years
Advocates for inmates are shocked by the province's decision to spend $120 million on a new remand jail facility in Saskatoon, which will house people who haven't been convicted of a crime.
"I personally think it's ridiculous. The province has lots of tools to stimulate the economy and lots of tools to deal with crime and building more cells to warehouse people is actually the most expensive way to do that," said Shawn Fraser, who is CEO of John Howard Society of Saskatchewan.
Fraser said there's no doubt overcrowding and high numbers in jails are a long-standing problem in Saskatchewan, but building another jail doesn't get to the heart of the issue.
"It's sort of like if you had a weight problem and your solution was just getting a bigger belt," he said.
"This was the scale of money that you know in a lot of areas in our society could help greatly improve that when we're talking about housing, when we're talking about mental health and addiction treatment."
Fraser said it's not an "either/or" situation when it comes to government spending, but said locking people up isn't the answer. Building more jails does not lead to a safer or strong community but support for marginalized people so they don't feel compelled to turn to crime is a more significant factor in crime reduction, Fraser said.
"It's a strange investment," said Deb Hopkins, a retired long-time legal aid lawyer in Saskatoon.
The thing that should disturb all of us is that these are people that have not been convicted of a crime.- Deb Hopkins, retired lawyer for Legal Aid
She was shocked the province is spending this on the facility, when "they had only $171,000 for shelters" to buy cleaning supplies.
Hopkins also pointed out that the government decided against providing an annual $1.3 million to Saskatchewan's only supervised injection site in Saskatoon — a harm reduction initiative.
Hopkins believes this sends a message that the province doesn't care about vulnerable people, or Indigenous people.
"The vast majority of the people that are remanded in the prison system are Indigenous people, and it sends a message that the government would invest more money in jail than they would in supportive housing and community mental health assistance," she said.
"It suggests that they're really out of touch with the international movement to change the way things are going, because systemic racism is what drives this process."
Hopkins said the whole system is flawed. She said high remand numbers start with the high amount of police arrests, followed by charges.
"If [people] do get released, they're put out on conditions that make it almost certain that they're going to breach," she said. That means they get pushed back into the system. This pressures the court system and leads to backlogs, Hopkins said.
"There's insufficient community support for people who are trying to get bail, trying to get out into the community and so they sit there on remand.
"The thing that should disturb all of us is that these are people that have not been convicted of a crime," Hopkins emphasized.
Furthermore, she said that nearly half of people in jail are there for less than one month, so programming can't be developed for them. Hopkins believes these dollars would be more effective spent elsewhere.
- Sask. lawyer says 'serious discussion' needed as Indigenous incarceration reaches all-time high
- Statistics Canada report shows Indigenous offenders continue to fill Sask. jails and prisons
Sask. tweaks remand strategy
The Ministry of Justice made a goal in 2017 to reduce the average length of a remand stay by about half — 3.17 days from 6.35 by 2020 — a move expected to decrease the remand population by 50 per cent by that year.
Drew Wilby, assistant deputy minister of community engagement with the Ministry of Justice, said the province has since walked away from that goal. The Ministry could not provide data on average length of stay for 2018, 2019 or 2020 to date.
"If the goal is to lessen the amount of time people are spending on remand and all you're doing is churning them through faster you're not actually reducing the number of people coming into your system," he said.
"We are looking more now at how do we actually reduce the number of people that are in our correctional system as opposed to just how many days they're staying," he said.
Wilby said the new remand facility, slated to be built by 2021, means better programming for people sentenced to custody at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre because recreational space will no longer be used to house inmates.