Criminal Law

Bail, probation and parole systems in need of overhaul: Goldlist

By Peter Small, Contributor

Canada’s bail, probation and parole systems are keeping vulnerable offenders trapped in a revolving door, says Toronto criminal lawyer Jordana Goldlist.

“The ways in which those particular mechanisms are implemented are almost designed for failure for certain people,” she tells

It begins with bail hearings that either keep people behind bars for months or release them under unreasonable conditions, says Goldlist, principal of JHG Criminal Law.

In denying bail, justices of the peace use the catchall criteria of there being a substantial likelihood of the accused reoffending, she says.

“Do you know how many times I’ve had clients who are denied bail once — we bring a bail review; they’re denied twice — and then they’re acquitted?” Goldlist asks.

Or the Crown drops the charges after the accused has been held for six months, she says. “It’s sending people out who have absolutely no respect for the criminal justice system because they’ve actually been victimized by it.”

Some defence lawyers contribute to the problem by urging their clients to accept a plea deal in return for a lighter sentence, she says.

Goldlist has had clients come to her with two- or three-page criminal records without ever having had a trial. This impacts their future sentences, she says. “Now instead of wanting six months' jail time on a particular charge because the client has a horrible record, the Crown wants two years.”

The Canadian remand population has increased more than threefold over the last 35 years to about 40 per 100,000 residents, higher than most comparable Western European nations as well as Australia and New Zealand, according to a 2015 study by University of Ottawa criminology professor Cheryl Marie Webster.

For many of those who do succeed in making bail, like drug addicts, repeat offenders or people accused of minor crimes, release terms are too restrictive, Goldlist says.

She has seen clients granted bail only to be rearrested for minor breaches like breaking their 8 p.m. curfew. "How does that help protect society?” she asks.

Probation, the provincially run system for supervising offenders in the community, is broken and needs to be abolished, she says.

The system should be providing offenders with work placements, education or other programs to help them become productive members of society, Goldlist says. Instead, they report to probation officers who are often too overworked to provide real help, she adds.

The parole system is also failing, she says. Although it’s supposed to help federal prisoners reintegrate into society, it’s really designed to keep them under supervision, she adds.

“There’s little or no job training, for example. My clients who have exited the system after a penitentiary sentence, all they want is to work. They want an integration that allows them to contribute in some way,” she says.

Instead, parolees are burdened with restrictive release terms, such as not consuming alcohol or not being away from their homes in the evening. “You’re telling me that when you finally taste freedom after five, 10 or 15 years, you don’t want to go out for a steak and a glass of wine? How is that harming society by allowing that?” she asks.

The system is stubbornly resistant to change because thousands of jobs depend on it, she says. “We pay probation officers. We pay police to enforce terms of probation. When the offender breaches, they go back before the court. It’s a revolving door.”

What’s needed is a thorough overhaul, she says.

“I think it’s a matter of people from different aspects of the system coming together and saying, ‘Okay what’s working? What’s not working? What’s the overall goal? Is the goal to reduce crime in society? Or is the goal just to fill up our prisons?”

Goldlist believes we need to focus on helping vulnerable offenders from their first contact with the system, offering them education, job training and programs like anger management or addictions counselling.

“I’m talking about the huge section of the justice system that affects drug addicts, people with mental health issues, people who are impoverished, young kids who are getting involved in crime because of situations at home they’re trying to escape,” she says.

“Let’s help people transition from incarceration into the community in ways that ensure they become productive members of society.”

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