Four thousand, five hundred and thirteen.
That’s how many outstanding warrants for alleged violations of probation and conditional sentences there were in Ontario in 2015/16, according to data exclusively obtained by Global News through Freedom of Information legislation.
Marie-France Lalonde, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, said that she would need to look into that number further, “To know that number, what it means, who are those individuals?”
Global News examined warrants as part of a two-month investigation into Ontario’s probation system, hearing from whistleblowers who say offenders aren’t being watched.
Warrants are issued when an offender is accused of breaking the conditions of their probation or conditional sentence: for example, failing to check in with their probation officer, or for consuming drugs and alcohol or owning a weapon when they were told not to.
One individual could have multiple warrants, and it’s possible that people might be in custody without having their warrants executed.
Even so, thousands of probation-related warrants remain outstanding each year.
WATCH: Break the rules of your probation in Ontario and most often, no one’s going to come looking for you. This applies to provincial offenders but, as Global News learned, for criminals at the federal level things are very different. Carolyn Jarvis has the story.
Issuing a warrant isn’t enough: someone needs to go out and find the person. Probation officers tell Global News that this isn’t happening as often as it should.
“There may be the odd case where the person is extremely high risk, is known to the police,” said Scott McIntyre, probation and parole representative for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
“It may be media-sensitive and they go out, the police will go actually out and look for him.”
But often, “nobody” goes out to get the offender wanted on a warrant, he said.
That can lead to problems.
Caleb Heaton had a warrant issued for breaching his probation conditions in Ontario in November 2014.
It’s unknown if police went to look for him, however a few months later, he was arrested in Vancouver following a brutal home invasion and sexual assault.
Probation officer Danielle Du Sablon said that warrants are often executed after someone gets arrested. “Oftentimes what happens is the offender re-offends, and therefore the probation warrant is executed or police run into him, trip over him and say, ‘Oh, you have a warrant let’s execute it,’” she said.
Lalonde was surprised to hear that probation officers say warrants for breaching probation conditions are rarely executed. “Actually this is a little surprising to me because my understanding is, based on the risk associated with that offender, then the police would engage.”
But police say it’s not really their job to chase down probationers.
“No, local police services do not go actively looking for those individuals that are on warrants. That’s a responsibility and a core function of probation,” said Charles Bordeleau, president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.
Sometimes offenders aren’t even aware they are on probation. Defence lawyer Will Jaksa told Global News that one of his clients claimed not to have known and never visited his probation officer.
A year and a half into his client’s probation, on a conviction of aggravated assault, no one has come to his house or arrested him yet, said Jaksa.
Lawyer Will Jaksa tells Global News’ Carolyn Jarvis about his client who claimed he didn’t know he was on probation, after being convicted of aggravated assault.
The ROPE Squad
But there is a team that hunts for people who have broken federal parole.
On a rainy April afternoon in Toronto, Det. Const. Steve Sermet was in his car, tracking down an offender.
He was looking for Robert Lloyd, wanted on a Canada-wide warrant for breaking his parole conditions. Lloyd has been in and out of prison six times.
Police say he didn’t sign back into the shelter as required by his conditions one day, and so a warrant was issued and the ROPE Squad was called in.
The Repeat Offender Parole Enforcement Squad (ROPE) is a partnership between municipal and provincial police in Ontario. Their job is to find offenders who are at large. Sermet was leading the Central East six-person team that day.
“You always worry that the longer they’re out there, the more chance they need money, need food, may commit a crime and that’s why basically why we were created back in 2001,” he said. “Someone has to pay attention that when these people are running around with Canada-wide warrants they could potentially hurt someone or commit a crime and we want to stop that from happening.”
WATCH: The Repeat Offenders Parole Enforcement Squad, a partnership between OPP and municipal police officers, pursues offenders who are alleged to have broken the conditions of their federal parole.
Not 24 hours after Lloyd’s warrant was issued, a call came in from a parole office. Lloyd was there, in the waiting room, so Sermet and his partners arrested him. He was transported to a detention centre, although charges weren’t laid in this case.
The ROPE squad arrests about 800 people each year, said Sermet.
He estimates that about 90 per cent of their cases are federal parolees – people who have committed the most serious crimes. There is no unit like ROPE that focuses solely on provincial probationers.
By tracking down warrants, the ROPE Squad sends a strong message to offenders, he said. “We never give up.”
“That’s the thing with the ROPE Squad, you continuously investigate to try to locate, so the warrant doesn’t go away. And these offenders know that.”
For 13 years, McIntyre says he has been unsuccessfully pushing to create a separate unit of specially-trained compliance officers who would work in the field, with protective equipment and a mandate to enforce probation conditions.
“We believe that the creation of a community corrections compliance unit would solve issues of compliance checks, therefore enhancing public safety,” he said. “We would actually have a unit out there that would check for the whereabouts of offenders that are wanted on our breach charges.”
“I would say that I’m very open to having a conversation about how to improve the system,” said Lalonde. “I already met with the parole and probation officer executive from a union perspective and he knows that I want to reengage. I really want to hear the solution that they are bringing forward.”
McIntyre confirmed that he met with the minister in late April, though he said the meeting focused on issues related to correctional institutions. He expects that they will be discussing probation in more detail at an upcoming meeting scheduled for next week.