The latest statistics available tell us over 7,400 people were being held in custody in Ontario on average per day. Conditions in jails, including overcrowding and often a lack of access to personal protective equipment (PPE), puts people in custody in danger of contracting COVID-19. In January and February, COVID-19 outbreaks have been declared at many jails across Ontario, including Hamilton-Wentworth detention Centre, Maplehurst Correctional Complex, Niagara Detention Centre, north Bay Jail, Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, Quinte Detention Centre, St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Centre, Central East Correctional Centre and East Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre here in London.

The solution? Decarceration.

According to the Ministry of the Attorney General, as of 2018, 60% of people in jails were people on remand, people who have been charged but have not yet been tried and are waiting for their matters to be dealt with.

While these people are innocent until proven guilty, they are currently being held in jail before they have been tried, often for months. While sometimes it is because they are denied bail altogether, other times it is because they simply do not have access to the resources needed to access bail, including homes to meet house arrest requirements, the funds to afford ankle monitoring, or even people in their lives who are able to act as surety.

While R v Cardle, a case from 2020, specifically addressed the fact that a lack of access to housing should not be a reason someone does not get bail, people without access to these resources continue to remain in custody in high numbers, before they have been tried, being put at risk for COVID-19 and all the harm that comes with it.

According to the Government of Canada, around 21% of cases before the courts are administration of justice offices such as breach of probation, fail to appear and fail to comply charges. Avoiding jail time, both before and after any potential finding of guilt is one step in reducing the current jail and prison population.

The need for decarceration extends beyond pre-trial detention as well. Early releases for good behaviour, and an increasing shift to conditional sentences orders (house arrest) are necessary in a system faced with overcrowding, violence, and health concerns beyond the pandemic.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to shift away from incarceration and mass release people in jails, this need extends beyond COVID-19 and will continue to be needed after this pandemic ends.

DeMelo Law supports the decarceration of people in jails and prisons.