Sentencing rules hit Whitehorse inmates hard

Ottawa's decision to toughen sentencing rules unfairly targets aboriginals and jurisdictions with slow judicial systems like Whitehorse, say critics.

Ottawa’s decision to toughen sentencing rules unfairly targets aboriginals and jurisdictions with slow judicial systems like Whitehorse, say critics.

An internal Justice Canada study obtained by The Canadian Press this week found the Yukon puts offenders in pre-trial custody, known as remand, for much longer than other regions of Canada.

While a person in Toronto will wait an average of 14 days in remand before trial, the average wait in Whitehorse is 54 days, the study found.

It also discovered cities with a large aboriginal population, including Whitehorse and Winnipeg, had much longer remand wait times.

“People who are marginalized for whatever reason – the burden tends to fall harder on them,” said Craig Jones, the executive director of the John Howard Society.

“We’re talking about a socially marginalized population whose culture has been assaulted by 500 years of occupation, oppression and who do not have the same capacity for self-advocacy that white guys like me do,” he said.

Marginalized groups are often arrested and jailed more often than the general population, he said.

As well, the system takes longer to process cases in remote places like Whitehorse, thus leaving people in remand for longer periods; aboriginals get burned even worse than the average Canadian, said Jones.

Remand custody usually has poorer conditions than normal prisons, he said.

Inmates usually have little to no access to rehabilitation.

“It’s basically a huge holding cell,” said one.

The study was done in 2008, before Parliament passed the Truth in Sentencing Act in October 2009. It looked at 582 cases in six different cities.

Before the Truth in Sentencing Act, judges had the discretion to take into account logistical backlogs and could offer inmates credits when they were sentenced for time spent in remand.

The new law ended the practice of two-for-one credits and makes it difficult for a judge to offer a 1.5-for-one credit for time served.

“The net effect (of the Truth in Sentencing Act) is that people who spend time in remand don’t get a proportional sentence when they are finally sentenced because that discretion has been taken away from judges,” he said.

The study also shows the act has failed to answer for the logistical backlog in remote regions like the Yukon.

“When the two-for-one legislation came before the House and the Senate, it was sold on the basis that it would unblock the judicial process at the provincial level,” said Jones.

“The claim was offenders were running up their time in remand in order to take advantage of two-for-one,” he said.

“That may have happened in a limited number of cases, but there are much more serious bottlenecks in the provincial justice systems which this two-for-one legislation doesn’t address.”

“There’s a lack of judges, a lack of courts, a lack of public defenders, a lack of legal aid and, most importantly, something which has been left entirely out of this conversation, the time it takes the police to release information on the offender to the prosecutor,” he said.

“This legislation responds to one bottleneck, but takes no effect on the rest.”

For some reason, the federal numbers don’t match the Yukon’s numbers.

The average remand wait time in 2008 was 38 days, said Chris Ross, a spokesperson with the Yukon Justice Department.

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com

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