Putting the federal government in charge of incarceration for sentences that are longer than six months, upgrading or replacing 117 deteriorating courthouses, and diverting less complex cases away from the province’s courts are just some of the changes cash-strapped Ontario will have to make if it hopes to avoid doubling its deficit by 2017-18, economist Don Drummond warned last week.
He also adds more cases and more family court matters are adding to delays in the justice system that will waste time and resources and add to the province's growing deficit.
Lastly, he points out the province will spend at least $22 million per year in additional funding for more jails because of the federal omnibus crime bill’s plans to jail more offenders. He adds that figure is likely to climb in the upcoming years.
“The public expects more from its justice system than it previously did,” the report reveals. “The justice sector will need to transform its service delivery and find efficiencies while ensuring public confidence. . . . Ontario’s finances do not yet constitute a crisis, and with early strong action a crisis can be averted.”
According to the report, Ontario’s justice system is currently grappling with an increasingly strained court system and overcrowded provincial jails, with an increase in family court matters, in particular, leading to greater demands on the justice system and social welfare services that ultimately take a large chunk out of the province’s bottom line.
The news also comes in light of Ontario’s recent rise in its debt-to-GDP ratio, which has more than doubled to 35 per cent since the late 1980s, the report shows, meaning Ontario could raise its debt to $144 billion if changes aren’t made across the board, including in the province’s justice system.
To combat that, the report recommends the Ministry of the Attorney General develop an early intervention program that would divert less complex cases away from the court and to non-court alternatives like mediation.
The report also recommends the government should expand diversion programs for low-risk, non-violent offenders with mental illness rather than send them to jail.
If the recommendations are implemented, Drummond says, the province would not only save money in the long run, but would decrease court delays and help to improve the public’s perception of the justice system by replacing less complex cases with more serious cases that would, theoretically, move through a speedier justice system that handles only the most serious cases.
At the same time, by replacing or upgrading at least 117 of the province’s courthouses and facilities, the same goals would be achieved by reducing the amount of money the province spends on operating courthouses and facilities that are no longer used or used inefficiently, the report says.
“To deal with aging infrastructure, the justice sector should continue to work with Infrastructure Ontario to use alternative financing and procurement for capital projects,” the report adds. “Completed projects should be evaluated to learn if they did indeed deliver value for money as intended.”
If courthouses or judicial facilities are not delivering quicker, more efficient justice, the report adds, they should be cut to save the province money in the long run.
But that doesn’t mean the province should shy away from making larger and more significant cuts if it wants to make a serious dent in its growing deficit, adds Drummond.
In terms of the omnibus crime bill and provincial police services, the report warns if non-core police services like inmate transportation and community escorts, and the financial and service impacts of the crime bill aren’t properly considered, the province’s justice system will find itself strapped with an even greater deficit and overburdened jails.
Still, they aren’t the only area the province should look to when considering cuts according to the report. Drummond’s outlook for the omnibus crime bill across the province also follows a similar path.
“Ontario’s prisons are now filled to 95 per cent of capacity; the new federal legislation could raise this to over 100 per cent, with rates as high as 150 per cent in some institutions,” the report shows. “In the worst case scenario, the province would need a new 1,000-bed facility, costing $900 million to build and $60 million per year to run.”
To help mitigate some of the crime bill’s impact, the report recommends “uploading to the federal government the responsibility for inmates serving six months and more,” in order to “better align fiscal incentives for corrections” and give inmates greater access to federal rehabilitation services.
Hearings for the crime bill are currently underway in the Senate and combine nine previous bills that were never passed by Parliament. They would boost police and prosecutorial powers targeting drug traffickers, child sex predators, and dangerous young offenders if passed.
But John Rosen, a criminal lawyer at Rosen & Co. in Toronto, says while transferring the responsibility of incarceration to the federal government for inmates serving six months or more might help inmates access more services and relieve the courts in theory, he still thinks it’s not the best way to deal with the problem.
“To turn them over to the feds to do as they wish is ludicrous,” says Rosen. “Not just as someone who is a defence counsel, but as someone who is directly involved in the courts everyday, I sometimes have to wonder, what are we accomplishing?”
Rosen says the proposal could also create significant problems for inmates who are awaiting parole and inmates who are serving shorter sentences.
“In theory federal inmates should get a better break, but I would imagine the government would simply change the Parole Act to make it tougher for them,” he adds. “People who are doing short sentences could also be shipped out, which would create more problems than it solves.”
Continuing to jail people rather than rehabilitate them, or only rehabilitating a few, he adds, also won’t help the province cut costs in the long run.
“We have a serious problem in how we look at jailing people,” says Rosen. “By jailing people rather than rehabilitating them, this particular government, because of its political views, will not accept that inmates are going to eventually be released back into society and will need the tools to make that transition.”
But Toronto criminal defence lawyer Sam Goldstein says the report’s recommendations may not be all bad news, particularly among the province’s defence lawyers.
“The Drummond report implies the McGuinty government is plea bargaining more cases out of the criminal courts to balance the province’s budget,” says Goldstein. “The report shows the biggest expenditures are salaries at 70 per cent of the total budget. That’s the first largest expenditure for the province. The second largest is the cost of keeping people in jail prior to their trials.”
Goldstein adds, because the government “has no stomach” for fighting against “unions,” which represent the province’s judges and Crown attorneys, it has instead turned its attention to slashing remand costs by ensuring cases are plea bargained out of the courts.
“The Drummond report confirms current statistics that show crime is down, but the government doesn’t want to admit to that, so they make these recommendations rather than tangle with the unions,” he adds. “What they should be doing is consolidating courthouses and taking care of the exorbitant amount of people who are stuck waiting for their trials.”
But Rosen adds Ontarians have an important role in the process as well and should be less apathetic about their justice system if they hope to make any dent in repairing it, no matter which recommendations they follow.
“People don’t think that they’re involved in the justice system, but they are,” he adds. “It affects all of us and at some point in time they, or someone they know, will become involved in it and these things will really begin to matter then.”
For more on the Omnibus Crime Bill read: “Nicholson responds to omnibus critics.”