A new Manitoba Justice policy that requires police hold the people they arrest until the arrestee can be seen by a justice of the peace or judge has been made permanent.
Justice Minister Cliff Cullen confirmed the move Wednesday, two days after a Winnipeg Police Board meeting where Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth publicly called for a reversal of the policy, saying it strained police resources.
The policy was put in place in early April to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the corrections system.
At the board meeting, Smyth described the police headquarters’ holding cells as small, windowless rooms without toilets, mattresses or regular food service which required frequent attention by officers in contrast to the cells at the Remand Centre. Smyth said it was not uncommon for detainees to relieve themselves in the police cells.
Previously, Winnipeg police would take arrestees to the provincially-run Winnipeg Remand Centre for processing before the potential inmate saw a court official to either be remanded into provincial custody or apply for bail. Cullen’s announcement puts an end to that practice, known as ‘direct lock-up.’
“Manitoba remains the only provincial jurisdiction that currently accepts direct lock-ups… all other provinces and territories in Canada require judicial order prior to admission to provincial custody,” Cullen wrote in a letter to Smyth dated June 9.
Michael Weinrath, a University of Winnipeg criminal justice professor and corrections expert, said he understands the police service’s concern about the limited number of holding cells and what he described as inhumane conditions.
“I think you have to commend Chief Danny Smyth. The problem right now is that the police were not set up in their divisional offices to hold very many inmates, so at a certain point it does become difficult for them to arrange for inmates to be transferred to the custody of the province,” Weinrath said.
However, he thinks the current policy is good practice.
“The province has managed to reduce custody significantly and there haven’t been very many apparent impacts,” Weinrath said of potential public safety concerns with fewer people in custody.
The latest available figures showed a decrease of people in provincial custody from about 2,200 pre-pandemic to about 1,600 in early May, Weinrath said.
“In terms of the province’s more prudent use of fiscal resources, yes let’s spend less money on prisons and… put more money into programs of prevention; let’s put more money into providing social alternatives — mental health supports, addictions supports, to individuals to try to keep them out of the justice system or transition them out,” the professor said.
In his letter to Smyth, Cullen said the province moved to improve the process of transferring prisoners from police custody to provincial custody when the policy was first put in place.
Those include increased staffing at the courts on weekends and evenings to increase access to judicial hearings.
Cullen wrote that the goal is to have no one held in police custody for more than 24 hours.
Global News has reached out to Chief Smyth for comment on Manitoba Justice’s move to permanently end direct lock-up.