New Tory sentencing law hits Aboriginals harder | National Union of Public and General Employees

New Tory sentencing law hits Aboriginals harder

Preliminary data suppressed by government during Commons debates reveals impact of abolishing two-for-one remand credits when inmates are sentenced to prison.

Ottawa (28 Sept. 2010) - New tough-on-crime legislation enacted by the Harper Conservatives, ending the practice of giving inmates two-for-one credit for time spent in pre-sentencing custody, unfairly targets the poor, the illiterate and members of Canada's Aboriginal community, according to preliminary data gathered by the government.

Justice Canada carried out an internal study on the issue of credit for pretrial custody – also known as remand – by collecting court data in six cities over three months in 2008: Vancouver, Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.

The Canadian Press (CP) says a preliminary report, drawing on a sample of 582 cases, found that those awaiting trial in Winnipeg and Whitehorse – where Aboriginal populations are larger – spent far longer in remand than their counterparts in Toronto and Vancouver. In Winnipeg, the average was 120 days compared with 17 days in Toronto. In Whitehorse, the average was 54 days.

“The cities were ... quite different in terms of remand practices,” the report concludes.

“For example, in Winnipeg defendants were spending much more time in remand than the other cities. This could, in turn, have an effect on pre-sentencing custody credits. ..."

The study was conducted before the tougher sentencing rules were imposed. It also showed that judges in Winnipeg gave two-for-one credits about 80% of the time — something now forbidden.

The assessment was cited in a secret memorandum to cabinet about Bill C-25 but was not made public when the House of Commons and Senate debated the proposed legislation. It was obtained by CP under the Access to Information Act, as well as sections of two cabinet documents that refer to the study.

Craig Jones of the John Howard Society of Canada says many of the inmates in remand in Winnipeg are likely Aboriginals. The city is home to about 70,000 Aboriginals or about 10% of the local population – the highest level of Canada's major cities.

“They're poorer, economically, socially, and for various reasons they are less able to advocate for themselves,” Jones said, adding that many cannot afford to pay bail money so they end up spending more time in remand.

Jones advised parliamentarians last year that the proposed sentencing law would impact Aboriginals disproportionately.

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