“These are extraordinary, dire times,” an Ontario judge wrote last week in ruling on a bail application. Truer words were never composed. Federal public health officials have modelled a best-case scenario in which 11,000 to 22,000 Canadians die of COVID-19. A huge chunk of the Canadian economy is essentially on pause. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is predicting a 25 per cent unemployment rate — a number out of the early 1930s. After 17 years of post-SARS assurances that Canada led the world in pandemic preparedness, some of its jurisdictions are struggling to procure the most basic medical supplies: masks, gowns, testing swabs. At a nursing home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., 29 of 65 residents have died from the coronavirus. On April 2, André Picard, The Globe and Mail’s highly respected and level-headed health reporter and columnist, issued the following advice to Canadians with loved-ones living in seniors’ homes: “If you can, get them out while you still have a chance.” Jumped-up constables are harassing just for taking a walk in the park.
But I wonder: Are times extraordinary and dire enough to justify the release on bail of a man accused of stalking his girlfriend to the point of pulling up outside her apartment and firing a bullet through her kitchen window? The charges against him are “break and enter and commit assault, threatening death, criminal harassment and discharge firearm,” the aforementioned judge noted in his ruling. But, he argued, “the dangers to the prison population — both inmates and staff — posed by the risk of contagion have reordered the usual calculus.” None other than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly mused about the threat of COVID-19 taking hold in correctional facilities, he noted.
So the accused is now free on $71,000 bail, most of it owed upon forfeiture by his mother (with whom he is to live). He is to wear an electronic monitoring device at all times. That won’t “protect against an out of control, irrational accused who does not care about apprehension or prosecution,” the judge noted — an especially pressing concern in a domestic violence case such as this, he added. “But it does not lead to the conclusion that electronic monitoring is wholly ineffective.”
“Not wholly ineffective.” What a comfort that phrase must be to his alleged victim. It’s not a bad description for Canada’s COVID-19 response overall, really.
The alleged stalker is one of a growing number of offenders accused of serious and violent crimes who have been set free in recent days, Global News reported last week. The National Post’s Adrian Humphreys identified 12 recent bail decisions where COVID-19 came into play: In seven of those cases, the accused was released.
This coronavirus is highlighting all sorts of inequities in Canadian society, but this one seems especially cruel: If you’re a senior citizen whose relatives lack the means or the will to spring you, then you’re stuck living in fear. Meanwhile, judges are setting free allegedly very dangerous people because they might get or transmit COVID-19 in tight prison confines. In reality, though, both situations are the products of longstanding and well-understood institutional deficiencies that we have been all too happy to let slide.
At the best of times, Canada isn’t especially good at keeping inmates alive. A 2017 report from Correctional Service Canada found 291 federal prisoners had died of unnatural causes over 16 years: 154 by suicide, 64 by drug overdose, 41 by homicide, 12 by “accident.” In 2017, Reuters reviewed data from seven provinces and found there had been 254 total deaths over five-and-a-half years in their correctional facilities. Of those, 174 had been awaiting trial — i.e., they were legally innocent (as are the majority of inmates in provincial facilities). Only 34 were deemed to be from natural causes.
Those numbers do not bespeak a correctional system that’s capable of managing or containing a COVID-19 outbreak. Many prisoners and many of their guards agree on this point, media have reported in recent days. We have simply accepted prison overcrowding and mismanagement as a fact of life. Now the bill comes due: Some judges aren’t willing to “sentence” presumed-innocent people to await trial in such conditions — especially since it takes so outrageously long for most cases to come to trial. The guy accused of shooting at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment has been in custody for 17 months, the judge observed in granting him bail. His trial wasn’t scheduled until September — now, who knows? This, too, has been remarkably uncontroversial in Canada — even as judges throw out more and more serious cases over unconstitutional delays.
It’s much the same with long-term care homes, which will always be uniquely vulnerable to something like COVID-19. The issues provinces are now scrambling to address — chronic understaffing, employees who work in multiple facilities and can thereby spread infection, underpaid and under-supported long-term care workers — come as no surprise to anyone. But no one got around to addressing them until it was unavoidable, and residents were dropping like flies.
These extraordinary, dire times are shining a harsh light on institutions, governments and countries that have been half-assing along, hoping for the best. When this nightmare is over, we need to make sure no one turns that light off.
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