Jeffrey Epstein, the rich businessman who served time more than a decade ago for soliciting a minor for prostitution, will await trial, on charges of sex trafficking dozens of underage girls, from behind bars.
A judge denied Epstein’s request for bail on Thursday. If convicted, Epstein, who pleaded not guilty, could spend the rest of his life in prison.
The last time Epstein, who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, faced jail time — the result of a non-prosecution deal exposed by Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown last November — he didn’t actually spend much time behind bars. Per Brown’s reporting, Epstein was jailed in a private wing with his own guards, and given permission to leave the prison for 12 hours a day, six days a week to work from his office.
U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta recently resigned after facing renewed criticism over his role in that deal, brokered in 2008 when Acosta was a Miami attorney. While Acosta defended the deal, he did call Epstein’s work release “complete BS.”
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And yet, in general, work releases and other types of jail-time exemptions are meant to play a supportive role in the rehabilitation aspect of the justice system.
“One of the most misunderstood things is the mandate of the correctional service both provincially and federally is rehabilitation,” says Alana Abramson, a criminology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, “rehabilitation combined with public safety.”
Here’s how jail-time exemptions work in Canada:
You’re likely familiar with conditional sentences. That’s when you’re convicted of an offence that carries a sentence of less than two years’ imprisonment and, rather than sending you to a provincial jail, the court orders you to carry out your sentence in the community — with conditions. That’s a type of sentence usually reserved for people who don’t pose a safety risk.
Another option is an intermittent sentence, occasionally referred to publicly as weekends in jail. In purely time terms — meaning the ratio of time spent in jail versus time spent out of jail during a prison sentence — that’s probably closest to what Epstein served when he was allowed out for 12-hour stretches most days. However, in Canada, this type of sentence is only for people who face 90 days or less in jail.
Per the Criminal Code, the court can decide someone can serve their time a few days a week every week rather than consecutively until the sentence is complete “having regard to the age and character of the offender, the nature of the offence and the circumstances surrounding its commission, and the availability of appropriate accommodation to ensure compliance with the sentence.” In Ontario, Canada’s largest province,161 people were receiving work-related temporary absences from prison, according to June data.
Earlier this year, a Calgary police officer received such a sentence after being convicted of criminal harassment. Last year, a P.E.I. man’s request to serve an intermittent sentence for assault so he could keep working to maintain his E.I. eligibility was denied. And in 2017, a former NHL player served an intermittent sentence for impaired driving.
Occasionally, these sentences do stoke public controversy.
In 2018, students petitioned the University of Calgary to expel Connor Neurauter, a B.C. man who pleaded guilty to sexual interference and was sentenced to three months in jail and two years probation, in addition to registering as a sex offender for 10 years and providing the national data bank with a DNA sample.
WATCH FROM 2018: University of Calgary students call for registered sex offender to be expelled
Initially, the judge delayed Neurauter’s jail time so he could finish his semester. That was later changed so that Neurauter would serve time on the weekends. Regardless, the uproar grew to such an extent that he did not return to the university for that semester (although he was not expelled).
His mother told The Canadian Press her son’s sentence wasn’t unusual and that he was being treated regularly. “They offered him an opportunity to better himself and I don’t understand what the problem is with that,” she said.
Abramson isn’t a big fan of intermittent sentences.
Judges will assign some jail time to people even if they’re low risk as a form of general deterrence, she says, a way to balance rehabilitation with punishment. However, she notes, research indicates that general deterrence doesn’t really work.
“Most people don’t think, ‘Oh, I might get weekend jail so I better not do that.'”
There are three categories under which Corrections Canada, in conjunction with the Parole Board, will release inmates on a temporary basis:
- Escorted temporary absence
- Unescorted temporary absence
- Work release
The absences can be for a number of reasons, from medical and administrative, to community and family reasons, as well as personal development, or rehabilitation, reasons.
Escorted absences are limited unless they’re for medical reasons, and a person can apply for them at any point during their sentence. The unescorted absences are for eligible inmates who have already “served a portion of their sentence” and who are not classified as maximum security. Work release covers “structured” absences that involve outside work or community service for specified time periods that are supervised either by a corrections staff member or an authorized person from a different organization.
Inmates are approved for releases to work in trades, agriculture, grounds keeping and landscaping, special event set up and take down, specific Indigenous-focused work, vocational training and certification programs, as well as office work, service industry work, and community service, according to a Corrections Canada spokesperson. In one case, she said, some inmates have been approved to volunteer with non profits, such as Habitat for Humanity. A case management team will assess whether such a release is appropriate for a particular inmate and, if it is, they will notify the local police agency in advance. During the 2018-2019 fiscal year, 366 inmates completed temporary work releases.
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These absences work, says Abramson.
“What we know, with lots of evidence, is that locking people up in little boxes and depriving them of human contact and things from the outside actually makes communities more dangerous,” she says.
“Where possible, with public safety being the number one consideration, people in prison are reintegrated into society through gradual temporary releases.”
These releases can either allow someone to access an outside program, like Alcoholics Anonymous, where they might feel safer speaking candidly and getting the addictions help they need, Abramson says, or it can allow them to connect with loved ones far away, “starting to rebuild those relationships ahead of their release.”
A study that evaluated the temporary release of more than 27,000 federal offenders in Canada between 2005 and 2011 found the absences were linked to reducing unemployment and recidivism.
“We also found that more is better,” wrote the authors, L. Maaike Helmus and Marguerite Ternes.
“The more absences an offender received, the less likely they were to have negative outcomes in the community.”
And yet, like many programs, access will favour people without social or financial difficulties who are perceived to pose less risk to the community at large, says Vicki Chartrand, a professor at Bishop’s University with 15 years of prison expertise.
As a result, those people who are historically disenfranchised, such as Indigenous people, who are overrepresented in Canadian prisons, can be left without the option to take advantage of a program linked to good outcomes.
“Corrections is, of course, going to decide depending on the level of risk,” Chartrand says.
Individuals like Epstein, who come from strong financial backgrounds (his asset summary filed in court says he’s worth more than US$559-million) and with good social support (his family is rallying behind him and he has friends with powerful connections) “tend to have a greater chance of getting a temporary absence,” she says.
“Indigenous folks, because of colonial history, present with a lot more social and financial difficulties and lack of support so they’re less likely to be able to get these kinds of temporary outs.”
The key is support, Ambramson says.
“When I see people that have committed crimes succeed it is because they have a caring, supportive community behind them that is willing not just to support them but also to hold them accountable when they need to be.”
— with files from the Canadian Press, Reuters and the Associated Press