Covid-19 sharply reduced the number of people in Northwest Territories jails. After two years of the pandemic, that number shows little sign of rebounding.
During the pandemic, the territory’s corrections service and courts tried to bring down the number of people in NWT jails to reduce the likelihood of Covid-19 spreading among inmates.
By November 2021, there were only 74 inmates in a territorial corrections system that can safely house 253. Previously, occupancy was at around 200.
Last week, that number sat at 74 adult inmates and three youth – 32 percent of the NWT’s adult capacity and 12 percent of its capacity for young people.
The NWT government must now attempt to understand whether this reflects a new reality for its jails or whether occupancy will, eventually, return to pre-pandemic levels.
“It wasn’t that long ago when all the correctional facilities were full, busting at the seams,” said RJ Simpson, the justice minister, in the NWT legislature last week.
“Now we have the exact opposite issue.
“No one wants to make rash decisions about what we’re doing, how we’re moving forward, because this is a relatively short time period that we’re looking at where we’ve seen these low numbers. But the department has put together a working group to examine the numbers and try to determine why is this happening.”
Charlene Doolittle, the deputy minister of justice, said that group would involve senior managers working to identify the driving forces behind that change in jail population and whether there is any way to anticipate the future trend.
“That work has started,” Doolittle told MLAs last week. “It is a little too soon, we feel, to anticipate what the numbers will be post-pandemic.”
‘We could empty out our jails’
Breaking down adult inmates by facility, there are currently 53 at Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex, nine in Hay River’s South Mackenzie facility, eight in Fort Smith’s men’s jail and four in the town’s women’s facility.
Citing a model trialled in Scotland, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson suggested the territory could become a leader in Canada by attempting to eliminate jail time entirely in many cases.
In Scotland, Johnson said, legislators decided jailing people for short periods of time was counterproductive as people lost housing and employment – things they would need to be rehabilitated in society.
“They just don’t put people in jail for less than a year,” Johnson said, noting any NWT resident with a sentence longer than two years goes to a federal prison outside the territory.
“They use probation, alternative measures, treatment, whatever else. If we did that, we would have no one left in prison,” he told the legislature.
“When I look at the $40 million we’re spending on corrections, with a concerted effort we could put that into diversion and we could basically empty out our jails and be leaders in this.
“I question whether [the money] being spent on this is at all accomplishing what we want.”
Simpson, in response, suggested that was an unrealistic approach – and added many people in NWT jails are on remand, meaning they have yet to be sentenced.
“Sometimes a victim does want whoever victimized them to not victimize them, for at least a short period of time,” the minister said. “And there are serious concerns about just not remanding anyone.
“But that being said, I hear the member’s concerns. I think he’s an idealist and we need some idealists always bringing those ideas forward.
“I would like to keep the numbers low. The lower the better. So I will continue to work down that path, and I think that desire is shared by the department as well.”