by Joan Ruzsa
There is a public perception that people who are in jail “deserve” to be there, because they have committed crimes. While the idea that anyone deserves to be caged is problematic for many reasons, one of the most important things to remember is that approximately 6 out of 10 people in provincial/territorial custody in Canada are being held on remand, which means they have been charged but not convicted of a crime.
Why do so many people spend time locked up before going to trial? Contrary to popular belief, most people are not denied bail because they are seen as a threat to the community. In fact, the majority of people who end up in pre-trial custody are there because they are not in a financial position to post bail, nor do they have friends or family members who can act as sureties for them. So poor people are further penalized by having to spend months, sometimes years in jail awaiting trial.
Money is not the only issue at play here. Studies on systemic racism in the Canadian criminal justice system have shown that people from racialized communities and Aboriginal people are more likely to be charged for a crime based on very little evidence, and less likely to be given bail than white defendants. Our jails and remand centres are also full of people with mental health issues, drug users and the under-housed/homeless.
People in pre-trial custody to do not have equal access to justice as those people who are able to stay in the community until they go to court. Prisoners are limited by finances, having to make collect calls and erratic access to phones. They often have a legal aid lawyer appointed for them rather than having the opportunity to choose someone themselves, or they have to rely on other people to find them legal representation. Lawyers often don’t like going into jails to meet with clients, and defendants will sometimes meet their lawyer for the first time in court. Being incarcerated stops people from being able to make choices, access resources and information about their case, or to meaningfully participate in their own defence.
There have also been studies done that suggest that being in pre-trial custody creates a presumption of guilt, and that remand prisoners are more likely to be convicted than people who have been on the street prior to their trial.
We live in a country whose justice system is supposed to be founded on a presumption of innocence and the right to a speedy trial, when in fact we allow people to languish behind bars who have not been found guilty of anything, other than belonging to a particular group. We are told that “justice is blind”, when in reality, only a privileged few receive it. Why are we not more outraged?