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Low-risk prisoners released to reduce COVID-19 toll on Ontario jails

The Ontario Court of Justice is also making a number of changes due to the coronavirus.
The Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Innes Road. (Jason White/1310 NEWS)

The province is releasing some low-risk prisoners early, to reduce the toll of covid-19 on Ontario's jails.

Correctional services will have the option of early release for low-risk inmates who are near the end of their sentences. Inmates serving time on weekends have been temporarily released and will not have to report back to the jail each weekend. Inmates convicted of violent crimes or crimes involving guns, are expected to be held in jail.

Parole hearings will be held through electronic or written methods.

The province has also halted personal visits into the jails, for now.

Meanwhile, all family and criminal trials before the Ontario Court of Justice are being suspended in light of growing concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

The court, which handles the bulk of Ontario's criminal cases but does not have jury trials, announced Friday that it is further reducing its operations during the public health crisis.

As a result, it says trials and preliminary inquiries will be put on hold until June, unless a judge orders otherwise.

Judicial officials will remain available to preside over urgent matters. They will also handle some regularly scheduled matters, such as bail, remands and pleas for accused people in custody.

The court says it will rely on video and audio technology whenever possible to remotely address criminal matters involving people in custody.

"Although criminal and family courts remain open for urgent matters ... all steps are being taken to reduce in-person appearances and to implement social distancing for matters that must proceed," the court said in a statement.

"The Ministry of the Attorney General is working with the court and other key justice stakeholders to implement significant audio and video technology capacity to further minimize in-person contact for urgent matters that are proceeding."

The move comes a day after Legal Aid Ontario announced its lawyers, which offer free legal services to low-income people, would stop working in the province's courthouses until further notice due to concerns over the novel coronavirus.

The Criminal Lawyers' Association had also placed volunteer defence lawyers in courtrooms across Ontario to help during the pandemic, but said earlier this week the volunteers would leave Friday at noon to protect their safety and that of the public.

The association's president, John Struthers, said on Twitter that some Crown attorneys were expected to follow suit.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has also dramatically pared down its operations in light of COVID-19, with only urgent matters proceeding as of this week.

In Toronto, just two jury trials were allowed to proceed.

--With files from The Canadian Press.


Mike Vlasveld

About the Author: Mike Vlasveld

Mike Vlasveld, Digital Editor, CityNews Ottawa & the Valley
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