The number of people incarcerated in Saskatchewan jails has decreased significantly in recent months, according to the provincial corrections ministry.
As of Monday, 1,670 people were jailed, down from 1,866 on Nov. 23, 2020.
Most of the population is awaiting trial, with 974 people remanded and 694 sentenced. Two are sentenced federal inmates awaiting transfer, said corrections spokesperson Noel Busse.
“There are many possible reasons for the reduction in the number of inmates,” Busse said in an emailed statement.
“This could include decision-makers in the criminal justice system taking the current COVID situation into account.”
With outbreaks in jails across the province, Busse said Crown prosecutors are prioritizing public safety while considering current infection rates.
Saskatoon criminal defence lawyer Ron Piché said he’s seen that in action. He said the usual considerations — whether someone is violent or likely to re-offend — are still at play.
“Public safety is still the paramount concern,” Piché told Global News.
“(But prosecutors) might exercise their discretion and not oppose release quite as vigorously.”
Prosecutors may be more apt to release people on bail, but will impose other conditions, he said.
An increased number of non-violent people may be given intermittent sentences, which they can serve at home, Piché said. Typical intermittent sentences are 90 days or less and are served in jail on weekends.
‘Warehousing people in remand’
Concerns about overcrowding are long-standing, but with an operational capacity for 2,109 inmates, Busse said Saskatchewan jails are 79 per cent full.
John Howard Society of Saskatchewan CEO Shawn Fraser said the incarcerated population has historically hovered around 2,000 people.
“In the midst of lots of bad news coming out of Saskatchewan prisons, we’re very grateful that that number has now dropped,” Fraser said in an interview on Monday.
“We hope that that’s one step to help get the… COVID numbers back under control.”
Prisoners’ rights advocates have called for the release of remanded and non-violent people. The corrections ministry has not and will not release any sentenced inmates due to COVID-19, and said it does not have legal authority to release remanded people.
The inmate count previously dropped last spring, but increased over the summer and fall. Now that it has fallen again, Fraser is calling for continued efforts to minimize the number of people behind bars.
Reducing remanded populations should be step one, he said.
“Saskatchewan’s justice system has a real penchant for putting people in remand,” he said.
“Ultimately, it is meant to be a last resort. But in Saskatchewan, that seems to not always be the case.”
Instead of remanding non-violent people, Fraser said courts could connect them with supports like housing and addictions services while they await trial.
“We need to be supporting people in community versus warehousing people in remand,” he said.
‘People should be given the chance to be taught better’
Drayden Clinton said he has been remanded at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre since last January. The 26-year-old said he was charged in connection with an armed home invasion.
Clinton said he struggles with substance abuse. He’s calling for additional education and addictions programming for remanded inmates.
“People should be given the chance to be taught better rather than just be thrown out onto the streets without any knowledge of the opportunity to be better,” Clinton said in a recent interview over the phone.
Remanded people have access to education programming on a case-by-case basis, Busse said. They can also access cultural services, like Elders and chaplains.
“Providing consistent programming to remand accused is challenging, due to the short and indeterminate periods amount of time many remand accused spend in provincial custody,” he said.