Officials with Nova Scotia's Justice Department say they're taking steps to try to provide more community-based services for people who become involved with the law, while reducing the use of jails in cases where appropriate.
"We know that services rendered in the community are more effective than rendered in custody," Chris Collett, the province's executive director for correctional services, said in an interview following an appearance at a legislative committee.
"People make changes in the places they live and the places that they work, as opposed to taking them out of their communities and incarcerating them."
He said the use of incarceration should be maintained for the highest-risk people. But for everyone else, the department wants to have more services in the community to allow them to rehabilitate while maintaining employment and family ties. That includes reducing the "overreliance on remand" in favour of community-based programs, said Collett.
Supportive housing pilot program
The department launched a two-year pilot program in January with the John Howard Society to provide supportive housing in Pictou County for men. The program includes in-kind services from the departments of Community Services, Health and Wellness, Housing and Justice.
Along with housing, the program includes case management and services intended to help participants address the risks that got them involved with the law in the first place. Collett said the program would be evaluated after 18 months in hopes that it can be expanded.
Part of the challenge with remand is it prevents getting people into the community to receive services, said Collett. That's a particular problem for people who are homeless or dealing with mental illness, something Collett said the department is working to address in an effort to keep people out of custody.
Emma Halpern, executive director of Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, agrees that remand can be a barrier to successful rehabilitation and that people are better served by services in communities.
Community groups need funding
But for that to work, Halpern said groups such as hers need proper funding to be able to provide services such as supportive housing.
"What we're seeing is that the jails are becoming homeless shelters," she said in a phone interview.
"We have people without anywhere to go and no funding for supportive, transitional housing in the community for those folks."
Halpern's organization operates a 10-bedroom home that provides transitional housing and it's been full since the beginning of the pandemic. She's pleased to hear about the Justice Department's focus, but said there needs to be adequate funding to make it happen.
"If most [people in jail] could be in the community, one, it would be better for them and two, it would be way, way cheaper," she said.
"Instead of putting the hundreds of thousands into [housing people] in these jail facilities, why don't we put those hundreds of thousands of dollars into community-based programs and houses and let people live in the places where they are the most successful, getting the most gender-specific programs with oversight and monitoring and supervision and collaboration with the Department of Justice?"
Along with trying to reduce the use of remand, Justice Department officials are also working to redesign how they offer services to women who are in conflict with the law.
Deputy justice minister Candace Thomas told CBC News that women who become involved in crime are often victims themselves. That means understanding that helping women in custody also means addressing any trauma they might be experiencing.
"So from that basis, they need to be treated differently. We need to manage them differently. They may need separate and different programming," said Thomas.
Collett said the province has traditionally treated men and women who are incarcerated the same, despite research that shows they experience the situation differently.
That's starting the change.
The department has made physical changes to the jail in Burnside to allow for separate services for men and women. It also created a superintendent there for women's services. The responsibility for women's services within the department has been moved to a separate director. Program staff have also been hired, including a teacher and social worker.
The department is also working with the Elizabeth Fry Society to provide more community-based services.
"We'd like to see more community services available for women, rather than house them in custody," said Collett.
"We know that they experience custody different than men do and we want to be able to demonstrate that in how we provide services in those sites."
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