EDITORIAL: The Yukon justice department keeps finding ways to fall short

When the Yukon justice department announced in April its plan to retrofit a unit at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre to become the territory’s new halfway house, astute observers immediately notice something — the WCC is in fact not in the community.

But after more contemplation, it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.

When the Salvation Army’s Yukon Adult Resource Centre closed at the end of April, the department swooped in and did what it does best — make things worse for inmates.

Or should I say hotel guests? After all, when confronted with the shortcomings of the facility at a justice conference in 2018, assistant deputy minister Al Lucier called the WCC his hotel, describing various parts of the justice system as “travel agents” that “book” inmates into his facility.

That, naturally, was a very different time. The WCC was being inspected by David Loukidelis for the mishandling of Michael Nehass, an inmate with mental health issues who served time at the WCC for nearly six years.

Nehass, for the record, was never convicted of the charges that saw him put in jail and he served more time waiting for trial than he would have if he had pleaded guilty.

And it was also the same month that a study ranked the Yukon’s justice system as the worst in the country for the second year in a row.

Armed with that knowledge then, the department’s decision to try to spin this most-recent decision as innovation is just as nonsensical but suddenly more believable.

Andrea Monteiro, Yukon’s director of corrections, told the News on April 15 that the joint venture between the government and the John Howard Society of British Columbia was “an innovative partnership, all the way down from the location to a new NGO in the territory.”

That doesn’t seem like the kind of innovating anyone should aspire to.

Like it or not, halfway houses exist to serve as a bridge between incarceration and the general public.

I’m sure Lucier and the rest of his hotel staff will do their utmost to prepare the three-tiered building known as Unit E to fill the role, but it’s simply not a department that has earned the benefit of the doubt from the public or the media.

When the government reached a settlement over four human rights complaints in 2018, the department’s response wasn’t a mea culpa, but rather a desperate attempt to spin that into a positive.

“This settlement is a strong signal of our ongoing efforts and intent to improve how we provide mental health care services and manage those in custody at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre,” Lucier said in a press release at the time.

It’s been nearly two years, and the decision-making has not changed.

So when a legal advocacy organization and a group of lawyers banded together on May 4 to send a letter to the department, the response of the government was entirely predictable.

Would the government be open to relocating the halfway house, the one that opened just days earlier, to somewhere more in line with the spirit of a halfway house?

“I would say, absolutely no, not at this point,” Lucier said on May 5.

He said a lot of planning went into the transition. Time will tell if that is true; ATIPP exists and will reveal eventually what really did or didn’t happen.

At the very least, that’s a weak reason to do something. It is, however, a strong indication of the incredible inertia holding back reform in the department.

It’s easy to ignore things like this. After all, the perception is that the only affected people are criminals.

They wouldn’t be in this situation if they hadn’t broken the law, some say.

Except Nehass was never convicted.

Except the man who spent hours covered in his own feces in a cell at the WCC was never convicted.

The department seems to like to operate under the assumption that all who are under its purview are guilty.

That is not true and has never been true.

While many will be content to push these rather complicated issues from their mind and allow the government to punch down on some of society’s most vulnerable, not all will.

Guilty or not, all people deserve the rights and protections afforded to them by the law.

A halfway house at a jail is not a halfway house, even if you call the jail a hotel.

The WCC is one hotel that doesn’t need an expansion.