JUSTICE

Bailing out the small fry

Pretrial probation cuts costs and jail populations

Jim Bearden,Linda Jean Butler December 22 1980
JUSTICE

Bailing out the small fry

Pretrial probation cuts costs and jail populations

Jim Bearden,Linda Jean Butler December 22 1980

Bailing out the small fry

JUSTICE

Pretrial probation cuts costs and jail populations

Jim Bearden Linda Jean Butler

Early one morning late last summer, Cliff Lockhart, 22, was arrested and charged with breaking and entering. At the police station, he was fingerprinted, photographed and held in detention until he was transferred to a holding cell below the court-rooms in Toronto’s Old City Hall to await his bail hearing. A first-time offender and a small-town Nova Scotian, he was terrified: he had no lawyer, money or friends except those who were charged with him. But to his surprise, instead of being jailed as he expected because he couldn’t pay the $500 bail, he was released and put under the supervision of a bail officer. Says Lockhart: “I was relieved because I didn’t want to go back to jail.”

Lockhart is one of more than 550 offenders who have benefited from a recently introduced bail supervision pilot project now operating in 10 Ontario cities. The program, similar to a probation before trial, is designed to keep defendants out of jail if they have been charged with petty crimes carrying maximum sentences of two years or less. Although still in its second year of operation, the bail supervision program has helped reduce Ontario’s annual average pretrial, or remand,population of 17,000 by as much as nine per cent in some centres. A report due to be released early in the new year will recommend that the pilot project become a permanent program. Penal experts across the country are hopeful that through this kind of program the vast majority of those charged with petty crimes will remain free until proven guilty.

The main impetus for the introduction of the bail program was the burgeoning jail population and skyrocketing cost of building and maintaining detention centres. According to Ontario Minister of Correctional Services Gordon Walker, the ratio of accused to sentenced inmates in Ontario alone (50:50) is double that of either England or the U.S. Overpopulation usually occurs because many of the accused are not able to raise even the small bail fees of $50 to $100 and consequently spend an average of two months in jail waiting for trial at an approximate cost to the province of $50 a day. “The cold practical fact is that supervision within the community prior to trial is considerably less expensive than a remand in custody,” says provincial court Judge Robert D. Reilly of Kitchener, Ont. He also believes that an accused who is presumed by law to be innocent should not have to wait in custody simply because he lacks the supervision that could be provided by the community.

In order to serve the monthly remand population of 400 in Metropolitan Toronto, the professional full-time staff of 23 has found that its work can be supported by engaging about a dozen community volunteers. Operating as a private nonprofit organization, the staff administers the program with a budget of $308,200 a year. Once a bail supervisor agrees to supervise an accused in lieu of bail, he interviews him and helps him take advantage of public community services such as welfare and housing. A supervisor may also accompany the accused during interrogations by Crown attorneys and police. Alison Cook, a former nurse and Lockhart’s bail supervisor, says the work can be emotionally gruelling and frustrating, but adds, “All the hassles are worth it because I get a lot of joy out of seeing people being helped.”

Bail supervision programs originated in the U.S. in the 1960s as a result of

riots in overcrowded jails in cities such as New York. But it was only after the Bail Reform Act was passed in 1971 that the first Canadian bail supervision program was introduced in British Columbia. Terry Egan, head of the Community Pre-Trial Services Unit in Vancouver, says the province’s program was readily approved by judges and defence counsel, but police were reluctant at first because they feared the accused would escape. “Now,” he says, “the police really like the program because they don’t want to have to do any supervising after a case is brought in.” In Alberta, where Canada’s only other for-

mal bail program has been operating in some centres since 1975, approval is expected shortly for a more complete program partially based on the Ontario model. Some of the other provinces are still undertaking feasibility studies.

Perhaps the program’s best selling point is an unexpected bonus: not only does it keep the pretrial population down, but initial results indicate that it also tends to keep an offender out of jail altogether. Connie Mahaffy, the social worker who designed the Ontario program, points out that the defendant who awaits trial while living in the community under bail supervision is statistically more likely to receive a fine or probation compared to the same type of offender who awaits trial in jail. In fact, 85 per cent of those incarcerated become repeat offenders. Toronto criminal lawyer Dragi Zekavica notes that the effect of the program on a number of his clients—some as young as 16— has been excellent. “It allows them to start a new life.” For Lockhart—who will go to trial next March—participation in the program provided access to higher education. Next year, with financial assistance from a Manpower grant, he will enter a computer programming course. “Getting into this trouble,” says Lockhart, “led me to the right people to get to where I am going.”