1,685 B.C. inmates have not been convicted of a crime: one of them shares his story

Today there are more people in B.C. lockups awaiting trial than there are convicted criminals

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      Chris Trotchie was scheduled to appear before a judge on February 22. He faces charges of aggravated assault. But on Friday, his trial was delayed and reschedule for April 12.

      By that date, he will have spent exactly 10 months in prison.

      In a telephone interview, Trotchie told the Georgia Straight he’s been held in solitary confinement, or administrative segregation, as it’s officially termed in B.C.

      “I’ve been in jail to the point where it has driven me mentally ill,” he told the Straight.

      Trotchie has not been convicted of a crime. The question of his guilt or innocence will not even be discussed until that court date, now delayed until April. On June 12, 2015, he was denied bail on the basis of past convictions.

      “They’ve probably got it better in Guantanamo Bay,” he complained, comparing his detention without trial to the circumstances of terrorist suspects held at the infamous U.S. detention facility in Cuba. “I’ve spent eight months in 21- to 23-hour lockup.”

      Far from an American gulag, Trotchie is being held here in Metro Vancouver, at the Surrey Pretrial Service Centre just south of Newton.

      “In Canada, we’re guilty until proven innocent,” he continued on the phone from the B.C. Corrections facility. “That’s how it seems. I’m held on secondary grounds, which is my past record. According to that logic, should I be locked up my whole life?”

      Today there are more inmates in B.C. lockups awaiting trial than there are people who have been convicted of a crime.

      According to B.C. Corrections, there are 1,685 provincial inmates held on remand. They account for more than 60 percent of the province’s total prison population.

      Trotchie’s lawyer, Bill Jessop, said that for many Canadians, this is simply how the country’s justice system functions.

      “By no means is this unusual,” he told the Straight. “There are more inmates in Canada in custody who have not been convicted of a crime awaiting trial than there are who have been convicted.”

      Jessop said that if Trotchie is eventually found guilty, he will be given credit for time served. But if he is found innocent, or if the charges are stayed or dropped entirely, he will get nothing for the time he has spent in prison.

      Kevin Westell, another lawyer who has represented Trotchie, explained that for better or worse, a bail system is not about protecting the rights of inmates.

      “A bail hearing and the question of bail is not a determination of guilt or innocence,” he said. “It’s not about that. What it’s about is protection of the public and the maintenance of the court system.”

      The bulk of B.C.’s remand population is held in two Metro Vancouver facilities. As of February 16, there were 499 inmates awaiting trial alongside Trotchie at Surrey Pretrial Service Centre and another 519 at North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam. The remaining 667 are spread out in prisons throughout British Columbia.

      Before he was elected the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, David Eby edited a 2012 report for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association titled “Justice denied: The cause of B.C.’s criminal justice system crisis”.

      Although Trotchie was denied bail for past crimes, that document explains that many B.C. inmates are held without trial for no fault of their own.

      “Since 2001, the budget for court services including administrative staff and security has been cut 42%...[and] the funding for legal aid has been cut 36%. Despite a significant overall decrease in crime in our society, in 2008 B.C.’s justice system had 14.8% more cases than it did in 2001, and our jails housed 16% more prisoners.”

      Eby told the Straight the situation for these inmates is even worse than the statistics suggest. He explained that’s because Surrey Pretrial and North Fraser Pretrial lack services designed to benefit inmates held in other B.C. prisons.

      “When someone is in pretrial, there are no services, or very limited services,” Eby said. “If they are sentenced, then they go into facilities where there is drug treatment, anger management, and all this sort of stuff….But there is a different level of services [in pretrial centres]. The idea is, they are just waiting for a trial, that they are not there for years. But a lot of people end up serving the majority of their sentence in pretrial.”

      Eby also highlighted the burden placed on taxpayers by denying so many people bail.

      “Prison is one of the most expensive forms of housing out there,” he noted. “You have to provide someone with three meals a day and full-time surveillance. And so if you are imprisoning people who ultimately are not guilty, that is a huge waste of money.”

      According to Eby’s 2012 report, B.C. spends $30 million a year housing inmates awaiting trials.

      The situation has actually improved in recent years.

      Statistics supplied by Daniel McLaughlin, a spokesperson with the B.C. Ministry of Justice and Attorney General, show the number of cases stayed due to an unreasonable delay have declined significantly. In 2015, the number was 29, down from 120 in 2011.

      “There have also been a number of judicial appointments in the last 12 or 24 months,” McLaughlin said in a telephone interview, “in part to address delays in getting matters to trial.”

      In July 2015, the Government of B.C. appointed five new provincial court judges, and last November it appointed another four.

      Mark Miller, executive director of the John Howard Society of the Lower Mainland and B.C., noted that this isn’t a new problem but one that continues to worsen, with few people paying it attention.

      “Remand stays have become the contributing factor to overcrowding in correctional facilities,” he said. “Over the past 30 years, pretrial-detention rates have tripled, so this is a phenomenon that has been going on for a while, but one that continues to grow.”

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