650 words; 3 minutes to read
The majority (about 60%) of people held in provincial jails in Canada have not been found guilty of anything and this pattern has been getting worse in recent years. They are being held on remand, pending being released on bail, or a trial or other outcome. The latter could include dropped charges, too; in more than a quarter of criminal cases in Canada (and more than 40% in Ontario) the charges are eventually dropped, though in some of those cases the accused will have spent a considerable amount of time in jail and don’t get any compensation for this ordeal.
Moreover, the number of people on remand in Canada has been increasing, and far more rapidly than has the number of people sentenced to time in a provincial jail. Also, Indigenous and Black people are more likely to be held on remand. And this despite now yet another Supreme Court decisions, R v Zora – the third one telling lower courts that they are holding too many people, and putting too many conditions on those released on bail. A Supreme Court decision may be the law of the land, but that does not mean it gets applied consistently in Canadian courts.
Remand conditions are bad
In Canada, almost everyone held on remand is held in a maximum security prison, too. That is because provincial jails are set up for only one class of prisoner – the most dangerous. And even though the vast majority of people in them are not dangerous at all, all provincial prisoners are subject to the conditions designed for the few who are in fact dangerous.
The problems of remand are well known, and have been the subject of previous posts on this blog as well as statements by the federal government . However a new study shows even more clearly how wrong our current system is.
Important new study
This new study is based on a comprehensive analysis of all criminal charges in Denmark over 15 years. Denmark has a unique system that allows researchers to match criminal records with other social indicators such as employment and income, all done anonymously. The researchers analyzed 75,000 cases involving 50,000 people who spent at least some time in custody on remand. That includes people who were never convicted of the crime as well as people who were convicted.
They found that those who were held in remand had significantly worse labour market outcomes, both employment and earnings, including worse outcomes than those who were convicted of a crime but not held in remand. At the same time, those held on remand were did not commit more subsequent crimes than those released. And this is so even though in Denmark, unlike Canada, information on criminal charges is not widely available to the public, which typically increases discrimination against those charged, whether found guilty or not.
In other words, remand made things significantly worse for the people held without providing any apparent gain in public safety.
The researchers conclude: “Our results show that detention results in consequential harms to labor market and family attachments that are, importantly, not counterbalanced by reductions in recidivism. Such results, taken together, raise serious questions about the (over)use of pretrial detention, where the pains of punishment are visited on those who may never be convicted of anything.”
They also say that “ pretrial detention everywhere represents a fundamental and relatively unexamined denial of liberty, with no corresponding finding of criminal responsibility to justify its use” and no benefits to public safety to balance the serious costs to individuals.
The Senate of Canada identified excess use of remand as a contributing factor to the serious delays in criminal justice in this country. At a time when the justice system is under stress in many ways, a large decrease in the use of remand would free time and resources for more urgent purposes without threatening safety. This seems an obvious reform, long past due.