By Anna Mehler Paperny and Tessa Vikander
TORONTO/VANCOUVER (Reuters) – Canadian lawyers and government prosecutors are joining forces to get people out of provincial jails by accelerating bail hearings amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak in the close quarters.
Lawyers are volunteering to put together bail applications for people in detention, and for those with non-violent infractions, try to get them released based on time already served.
“The concern is that a jail sentence can potentially become a death sentence for those that are there,” Toronto lawyer Daniel Brown said. “What we see is really a team effort by all the justice participants to ensure that bail hearings proceed.”
About 1,000 Ontario inmates were released last week.
More than 2,100 people have been diagnosed with the virus in Canada, with 24 deaths. Globally, cases exceeded 377,000 as of early Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, including 16,500 fatalities.
Jails and prisons around the world have been scrambling to safeguard a captive population that includes many people with underlying medical problems. Many have limited or banned visits and, in some countries, have been releasing inmates early.
In Ontario, where two-thirds of the jail population is on remand, court cases dealing with smaller infractions, such as traffic violations, have been postponed.
“It’s not the time to throw somebody in jail for missing their appointment,” said lawyer Mark Gervin, vice president of British Columbia’s Criminal Defence Advocacy Society.
Crown prosecutors are considering the virus’ effects on the health system and being more flexible, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, lawyer Brian Pfefferle said.
“It’s not to the point where they’re releasing people that are prisoners serving sentences,” he said, but noted: “I certainly have never seen such a collaborative approach in my career.”
So far there have been few confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada’s prison system.
A maintenance worker at Ontario’s 315-bed-capacity South West Detention Center tested positive for COVID-19, according to Ontario’s ministry of the solicitor general. Another worker in a Toronto detention center is being tested for the virus.
John Paul Conrad Loewen, who is being held at the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre in British Columbia, said he and his fellow inmate clean their cell with bleach every morning.
“We’re all very scared,” he said.
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny and Tessa Vikandra; Additional reporting by Denise Paglinawan in Toronto; Editing by Amran Abocar and Leslie Adler)