Veteran defence lawyer says COVID-19 raises questions about why non-violent offenders are behind bars

Defence lawyer Ian Wagner says the COVID-19 crisis is spurring a conversation around who is in jail and why.

Crisis could spur big changes to how system works

Operations at Saskatchewan courts dramatically changed over the past three weeks, (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Ian Wagner says the statistics are going to tell a story that could change how courts and jails work in this province.

Prosecutors across Saskatchewan are now reviewing the files of people who are behind bars on remand, but not charged with a violent offence. The goal is to get people out of jail to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

There are hundreds of people in jail right now who are charged with an offence but waiting for their matters to proceed through court.

They can range from people facing murder charges to those charged with failing to show up at court.

Wagner and others are pointing out questions raised by the situation. First, what happens after the crisis is over? Second, why were those who end up being released after review in jail in the first place, especially when jails are overcapacity?

"I think we've got the option to get some real statistics and analysis about how we do these things," Wagner said.

He said an unintended consequence of COVID-19 is that it could create a statistical baseline for these discussions. What will happen, for instance, with a person who is remanded because of a history of not appearing in court when scheduled?

"When it comes to releasing people, we should be able to see whether there is an increase or if it even stays the same, about failures to appear," he said.

In an earlier news release, community corrections noted that individuals on probation are now able to contact their supervisor by phone, rather than in person. There are 6,571 adults and 833 youth supervised by community corrections.

"That's how they have to report, and our whole system has been built on actual physical presence between all parties in our system," Wagner said.

"So I think this gives us an opportunity to look at how we can better use our resources ... and keep the public safe."


Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.