Yukon’s high incarceration rates show need for supervised housing: legal aid head

The territory needs to offer more housing to both offenders and victims of crime, says the head of Yukon’s legal aid society.

The territory needs to offer more housing to both offenders and victims of crime, says the head of Yukon’s legal aid society.

David Christie said he wasn’t surprised by a recent report from Statistics Canada showing that the Yukon had the highest jump in incarceration rates in 2015-2016.

The Yukon incarceration rates for 2015-2016 are the lowest of the three territories, but still higher than all 10 provinces, with 94 people incarcerated and 336 under supervision in the community.

“The numbers don’t surprise me because the crime rate is bad,” the executive director of the Yukon Legal Services Society told the News.

Internal data compiled by legal aid confirms that trend, he said.

In March 2012 Yukon legal aid lawyers had 262 open adult criminal cases. In March 2017, that number had jumped to 434.

“That’s what we’re feeling,” Christie said. “All of our caseload is higher.”

And while those numbers only offer a snapshot of the territory’s crime picture they confirm trends observed by Statistics Canada reports.

The recent StatsCan survey also found a majority of inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre — 62 per cent — are there on remand awaiting trial.

That’s because the courts don’t have a lot of options when balancing public safety and offender supervision, Christie said.

Judges can send people to the WCC or to the Adult Resource Centre, a home with 24/7 supervision.

“It’s overkill putting them in jail,” he said.

But the ARC has a limited number of beds, he said, and only for male offenders. There, people undergo daily alcohol testing and are constantly monitored.

Often Crown prosecutors would consent to an offender’s release if there were other options available, Christie said.

And that lack of options goes hand in hand with another common feature of crimes in the Yukon: high rates of alcohol abuse.

While at the WCC, remanded and sentenced inmates can’t get the same in-house treatment for substance abuse issues they can get through the government’s alcohol and drug services program, he said. And more often than not, courts will require offenders with substance abuse issues to stay sober while on bail or probation.

“It’s wrong,” Christie said. It sets them up for failure. Most offenders, if they’re not drinking, they aren’t a risk to public safety.”

Christie said offenders need temporary structured and supervised housing to deal with alcohol problems, trauma and mental health issues.

He did applaud the Yukon government’s new alcohol and drug services building. In 2016, the government unveiled the new facility, which more than doubled its capacity, from 20 to 50 beds, and added a new youth residential treatment program.

For its part the Yukon’s Department of Justice points to the territory’s small population for the large jump in incarceration rates.

A small increase in inmates at the WCC will have an inordinate effect on the incarceration rates, the department said.

Spokesperson Dan Cable pointed to several large anti-drug gang operations Yukon RCMP conducted in the past years.

In late 2013 the force arrested five people during Operation Monolith, and another five in Operation Monarch in 2015.

Given that there are currently 68 people at the WCC, an extra 10 people would make for a major spike in the incarceration rate.

Three types of charges make up 62 per cent of all criminal violations in the territory: breaches of probation orders or bail conditions, mischief, and disturbing the piece.

“Most of those are alcohol-related,” Cable said.

For Christie, that just proves his point: more housing would mean fewer alcohol-fuelled breaches and less incarceration.

But the Statistics Canada reports don’t break down breach rates by type — no contact orders, failures to report to a bail supervisor or not staying sober — Christie said.

The lack of uniformity in the different crime reports is another problem he found.

But for Cable, the high remand rates can also be explained by the number of people with a poor record of attending court, he said.

He said incarceration numbers have been going up and down “significantly” over the past few years.

When the new WCC opened five years ago, there were 120 inmates there, Cable said.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated March 15 to clarify remarks by David Christie about access to substance abuse treatment available to inmates at WCC. 

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