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Slapping cuffs on corrections system

Report blasts poor planning for future growth

The province is considering ways to better manage a high number of prisoners locked up in Manitoba.

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The province is considering ways to better manage a high number of prisoners locked up in Manitoba. (LEAH HENNEL / CALGARY HERALD FILES)

The province is looking at ways to better manage the high number of offenders behind bars and the rising cost to keep them locked up.

Justice Minister Andrew Swan said his officials are also examining how offenders can be more closely monitored while on community supervision in the wake of a damning report that found too many shortcuts were being taken to manage case workloads.

Swan said as of Wednesday, 2,322 adults were in custody in the province's jails, down from 2,388 on the same day last year. On Oct. 18, 2012, there were 2,431 adults in jail, for a total drop of 109. There were also 17 fewer youths in custody over that 18-month period.

Swan said pushing the numbers down are a decrease in crime and more offenders being diverted into non-custodial bail-supervision programs, such as two operated by the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies.

Swan said the province is trying to deal with the stubbornly high number of inmates in custody waiting for a court date.

"We're not hanging up the success banner, but a drop of 109 people in adult custody over 18 months is a good start," he said Thursday.

Swan was responding to auditor general Carol Bellringer's review of the province's adult corrections system released Wednesday.

Bellringer said the province's planning for future jail capacity is inadequate, and while many measures have been put in place to address overcrowding, it is still inadequate.

"The deterioration in a number of the correctional centre infrastructure and the costs associated with that had not been worked out," Bellringer said.

The report said Corrections has estimated the number of inmates will climb, despite a falling crime rate, which will drive up costs.

Between 2004-05 and 2012-13, the number of adult offenders increased 111 per cent and the number supervised in the community increased 16 per cent. Salaries and operating costs grew by 129 per cent, totalling $173 million in 2012-13.

The audit also looked at how well the province is monitoring adult offenders on community supervision -- the majority of offenders in the system. It found effective and consistent monitoring was weak.

"All of this in our view affects the department's contribution to public safety," Bellringer said.

"You put stronger supervision management practices into place, you're going to reduce your risk. If you do nothing, you're going to increase your risk."

She added in three regions, probation officers, to deal with their workloads, met less frequently with offenders and for shorter periods of time.

"They relaxed the standards in order to get the workload under control," she said. "In my view, that increases the capacity to address the risk."

Swan said Bellringer's comments on community supervision were related to regional offices, those in rural and northern Manitoba where travel is often limited because of weather and accessibility.

"If you're a probation officer and you're only getting into a community every two weeks or every month and all of a sudden you can't make it in because of the weather, it may well be that your entire caseload is not meeting the standards that we have set that may be easier to meet in Winnipeg or Brandon," he said.

Tory justice critic Kelvin Goertzen said Bellringer's audit highlights how poorly the province is managing inmates in and outside jail.

"The report is saying that probation officers are so overworked that they can't check in on these offenders in the community and the risk grows for the public," Goertzen said, adding more probation officers should be hired to address workload.

"You have to have a reintegration system that prevents (offenders) or gives them encouragement not to commit another crime."

Goetzen also said one of the drivers for overcrowding in jails -- the rated capacity was 1,893 beds as of last May -- is a dire lack of jail space.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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