Thursday, March 26, 2020
Hon. Sonia LebelMinister of Justice and Attorney GeneralMinistère de la Justice, Édifice Louis-Phillipe-Pigeon1200, route de l’Église 9e étage Québec G1V 4M1VIA EMAIL
Hon. Geneviève GuilbaultMinister of Public SecurityMinistère de la Sécurité publique, Tour des Laurentides2525, boulevard Laurier 5e étage Québec G1V 2L2VIA EMAIL
Dear Minister Lebel and Minister Guilbault,
I am writing to urge you to take further immediate actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through Quebec’s jails and detention centres.
We recognize the steps your government has taken to date, notably allowing intermittent inmates who are over 70 or present symptoms of COVID-19 to serve their sentences through house arrest.
Given the magnitude of the current health crisis, however, further action must be taken. A public health approach requires that the releasable be released and detention be a measure of last resort. Quebec needs to take immediate measures to drastically reduce the currently incarcerated population and divert newly arrested individuals from entering these institutions.
Other jurisdictions are already taking action. On Sunday New Jersey’s chief justice signed an order authorizing the release of as many as 1000 sentenced offenders from its jails, including low-level offenders, those jailed for probation violations and those convicted in municipal courts.1 In California judges and sheriffs are proactively ordering the release of hundreds of inmates, including by releasing those most at risk to health complications, speeding up the release those with less than 30 days of jail time remaining, choosing to issue citations instead of arrests, and reducing bail requirements for nonviolent pretrial inmates.2 In the Bay area those released with no place to go are being offered rooms in local hotels.3
Despite the steps being taken by various Canadian governments to date, on the whole our criminal justice system is still operating at cross-purposes with public health goals. The incarcerated population is particularly vulnerable due to the crowded conditions and the large number of people with underlying health conditions. Providing adequate health care and controlling infection in provincial institutions is very difficult at the best of times. Our correctional institutions are simply not equipped to handle the magnitude of this public health crisis without immediate and significant actions. Most individuals in Quebec’s jails are waiting for release on bail or serving short sentences for non-violent offences. Failing to act now risks turning a short stay behind bars into a death sentence.
Isolation measures in jails and correctional centres is part of the answer. Simply locking the cell doors, however, will not bring this infection under control. Most people cycle in and out of detention centres within a matter of days or weeks. Being locked up means overcrowded conditions, little to no healthcare, and the near impossibility of socially distancing. This health crisis appears set to last for months, at a minimum. Lockdowns under these conditions are both inhumane and ineffective. This is exactly when our Constitution requires governments to step up to treat everyone humanely.
The Ontario Superior Court made a similar point this week on a bail review: R. v. J.S., 2020 ONSC 1710. Our criminal justice and correctional systems must come to terms with the magnitude of this crisis.
At a minimum, the following specific actions must be taken immediately:
For those facing possible arrest or charges:
For those in pretrial detention:
For those on probation and parole:
For immigration detainees:
For sentenced inmates:
Every release from confinement will alleviate over-crowding, avoid the spread of infection when the virus reaches penal institutions, and protect inmates, correctional officers, and the innocent families and communities to which detainees and inmates will return.
Quebec must effectively advance public health goals throughout the criminal justice system, in a variety of ways, with particular focus on those easily becoming an afterthought during a pandemic.
Thank you for considering the foregoing.
Executive Director & General CounselCanadian Civil Liberties Association
1 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/nyregion/coronavirus-nj-inmates-release.html; https://www.aclu-nj.org/files/5415/8496/4744/2020.03.22_-_Consent_Order_Filed_Stamped_Copy-1.pdf.
4 The “public interest” can be invoked to justify the liberation of a defendant, but not to justify the laying of a charge or continuation of a prosecution, absent a reasonable prospect of conviction.
5 See https://www.aclu-nj.org/files/5415/8496/4744/2020.03.22_-_Consent_Order_Filed_Stamped_Copy-1.pdf.
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