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Ontario corrections minister unaware of concerns that home visits, curfew checks rarely done by probation officers

This week, Global News has been exposing gaps in Ontario’s probation system. We heard from whistleblowers who said that offenders aren’t being watched as well as they should be. We also heard that when offenders allegedly break the terms of their probation and a warrant is issued for their arrest, it’s rare for officers to go look for them.

READ PART 1: Ontario’s probation system ‘a joke,’ say offenders
READ PART 2: 4,500 outstanding warrants for alleged probation and conditional sentence violations in Ontario

Global News’ Carolyn Jarvis sat down with Marie-France Lalonde, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, and asked her about our findings.

WATCH: Carolyn Jarvis sits down with the minister in charge to get her reaction and discuss possible solutions.

Here is some of what she had to say.

Question:
We’ve learned disturbing things about the degree to which offenders are being monitored in the community when they are serving community sentences. In some cases, we’ve learned they’re not being monitored at all. Are you aware of this?

Answer:
“Well we were aware. As you know it’s been reported. One thing that I’m very proud of is the work that our parole and probation officers are doing. I have strong confidence in their ability about what they do every day,” said Lalonde.

She said that the overall case load among officers has also been reduced.

Question:
If an offender is given a community sentence with conditions to, say, abstain from drugs or alcohol or avoid weapons, if they have to abide by a curfew, is it not a reasonable expectation that someone at some point will go and check on them in the community to make sure that they’re abiding by those terms?

Answer:
“I think we do have safe communities,” said Lalonde, but “we can always do more.”

The government has increased the training for probation officers, she said, and are implementing policies to help and support them.

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Offenders are assessed when they are released back into the community and a risk management plan is developed for each offender, she said. “So yes, my expectation is based on the assessment that someone follows up in the sense of ensuring safety of the community.”

Probation and parole officers strive to ensure the safety of everyone in the community, she said, and the level of interaction that they have with a given offender depends on the assessed risk level. “They also partner in many parts of our province with our law enforcement, so if they feel that there is a risk associated with the non-reporting back then they can always engage that avenue.”

Question:
Well actually the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police has gone on the record saying that probation management is a probation problem, not a police issue.

Answer:
Lalonde believes that there is an understanding between probation and parole officers and the police that in some cases, probation might need the police to step in.

“If the experts, which are our parole and probation officers, feel that, you know what, there’s maybe a risk associated with that individual not being able to report back and they’ve not heard from this person and they are high risk, the police will be engaging.”

Question:
We have uncovered cases where sex offenders who were deemed in the eyes of the managing probation officer, a very high risk to reoffend, were never once visited by a probation officer nor a police officer. In the case of this individual, they reoffended. Would it not be a reasonable expectation that someone should have visited that person at home?

Answer:
“Those are cases where you never want this to happen.”

She’s proud of how training has been improved, she said, but there are areas where they need to do better.

Question:
We have spoken with offenders who have said that probation in Ontario is a joke. What’s your reaction to that?

Answer:
“I would disagree,” said Lalonde. “I’m very proud of the work [probation and parole officers] do. I think they keep our community safe.”

“When you look at our correctional reforms in the follow up reports from Mr. Sapers coming and the investment that we’ve made since the auditor general report, I think we’re on the path of improvement.”

They have also hired new staff and are training them better, she said.

Question:
Curfews are commonly imposed for people who are given community sentences but probation officers across the province have told us that they never do curfew checks. We’re not talking occasionally, were talking never. Why bother handing out curfews if nobody is going to check on these offenders?

Answer:
“As a new minister, I would like to engage with them in that aspect to see why curfew they feel is not something that they feel strong about,” said Lalonde.

If provided with the right support, probationers can re-integrate into society, she said.

WATCH: Marie-France Lalonde, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, speaks with Global News’ Carolyn Jarvis about whistleblowers’ allegations that curfew checks are not being performed by probation officers.

Question:
Are you aware that curfew checks aren’t happening?

Answer:
“Again, that’s something that you are reporting to me…”

Question:
For the first time, have you heard this?

Answer:
“I haven’t heard exactly that aspect. This is something that you’re saying to me.”

Question:
And what’s your reaction to that if that’s the first time you’ve heard this?

Answer:
“Well the way I see that the work that our parole and probation officers do based on the assessment on the individual with the tools that they have, they are ensuring the safety of our community and I’m very, very proud of the work they do.”

Question:
We interviewed a sex offender on camera who was released on a conditional sentence — that’s the most severe type of community supervision we have to offer in Ontario — who never once in the entire year he was under his conditional sentence, with a very strict curfew, was visited by a police officer nor a probation officer.

Answer:
“So, again, based on the allegation that you are sharing today, I will say that will bring concern, significant concern,” said Lalonde. “So, I think this is something that I will take back and go back to listen to the reports back from individuals in our community but if those allegations are true, then it definitely brings concern to me.”

Question:
(Here, Carolyn Jarvis handed the minister a copy of part of a workplace safety manual for probation and parole officers.)

[The manual] praises community visits as you’ll see highlighted there as a valuable mode of contact with offenders for validating information, establishing a relationship with them and enhancing community safety. So on the very first page of the probation officers’ manual it praises community visits and yet we’re being told across the province they don’t happen.

Answer:
“Again, these are allegations. And I will follow up with that but my understanding is based on the assessment that our workers are doing, they will establish what type of home visits. So I never heard that we don’t do home visits to be frank.”

Question:
You’ve never heard that?

Answer:
“No, we do home visits at times, when required.”

Question:
Probation officers from across the province have also brought to our attention that when offenders break the terms of their conditional sentence and a warrant is issued for their arrest, that it’s exceedingly rare that somebody goes out to actually arrest them.

Are you aware of this?

Answer:
“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,” said Lalonde.

Question:
Your own ministry keeps a database of outstanding warrants. These are people who are serving community sentences that broke the terms of their release for whom there is a warrant out for their arrest, but in most cases nobody’s arrested them.

I’ll share a copy of that with you. And on the second page, you can look at totals for this year. So for 2015/2016 at the bottom right hand corner of your page, you’ll see that at the provincial level in Ontario there are more than 4,500 outstanding warrants for criminals who have broken the terms of their release and who are still at large. Who’s going to go get those criminals?

Answer:
Ultimately it comes down to how the offender’s risk is assessed by the probation and parole officers, said Lalonde. In serious cases, the probation officer might contact the police, she said.

Some offenders might be in jail, some might be in hospital or they might be in other institutions, she said.

“This is a number I will take back and look at more closely because I want to know,” she said.

Question:
Just one final question because I realize you’re out of time, the union has for quite some time suggested the creation of a community compliance unit, so officers who are specifically tasked with being in the field to make sure that offenders in the community are following the rules, that curfew checks are happening, and that if they’re not abiding by the rules they are brought in accordingly. How do you respond to the creation of a community compliance unit?

Answer:
“I would say I’m very open to having a conversation about how to improve the system,” said Lalonde. She has already met with the union executive and would like to hear their proposed solution.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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