Budget a step backwards for crowded court rooms

Local leaders seeking more court space in Red Deer are weighing options after an “extremely disappointing” provincial budget was announced last week.

Local leaders seeking more court space in Red Deer are weighing options after an “extremely disappointing” provincial budget was announced last week.

Brent Handel, president of the Central Alberta Bar Association, Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling and retired Queen’s Bench Justice Jim Foster — former Alberta Attorney General — have been lobbying the province for expanded court facilities for Red Deer.

They proposed that the province arrange a swap with the City of Red Deer that would see a new courthouse built on the site of the former RCMP building, now vacant and available for short-term lease. In exchange, the city could retrofit the existing courthouse for much-needed office space.

If anything, last week’s provincial budget was a step backward, with Justice Minister Jonathan Denis making no mention of any plans for Red Deer while announcing that courtrooms would close in Edmonton and Calgary, said Handel.

However, Denis said on Friday that the province is looking at other means of reducing the pressure on crowded courtrooms.

“Courtroom expansion is very expensive,” he said.

Means of improving courtroom efficiency include a court case management program that removes clerical tasks such as setting trial dates to a separate counter where people and their lawyers can line up for routine appearances.

Case management offices were first piloted in Edmonton, Calgary and Wetaskwin in 2008 and the program has since been expanded to a total of eight courthouses in Alberta, including Red Deer.

To date, 7,000 cases have been diverted to the counters, said Denis.

The province is also lobbying the federal government to abolish preliminary inquiries except for the most serious criminal matters, said Denis. Preliminary inquries cost 26 weeks of court time in 2012 alone, he said.

The justice minister is also promoting a plan to remove traffic cases from courthouses and put them at other sites.

Traffic cases in Red Deer are heard every Monday in the largest of the three rooms designated for provincial court, with criminal matters diverted to a smaller courtroom next door.

Under Denis’s proposal, people would still have the ability to plead not guilty, but they would not be entering their please in a regular courtroom.

Denis is also encouraging Crown prosecutors to make more use of the alternate measures program, where possible, to first offenders charged with minor crimes.

Red Deer South MLA Cal Dallas said he is aware of the Red Deer group’s desire for a bigger courthouse.

“The budget is clear in the context of what’s been made available. There weren’t funds provided for Justice for courtrooms,” said Dallas.

Lac La Biche-Saint Paul MLA Shayne Saskiw, justice critic for the Wildrose Party, said the minister’s response to the budget makes it clear that the Alberta Conservatives have stepped back from their stance of being tough on crime.

For example, he believes the money saved by getting rid of electronic monitors for people on various forms of release is not worth the resulting loss. The electronic bracelets were an effective and inexpense of means of keeping sex offenders away from schools and other places where children gather, said Saskiw.

“It looks like the justice minister . . . is now taking what I call a hug-a-thug approach. On situations like electronic monitoring, it just seems mind boggling that he would interfere with what’s been an exceptionally effective program,” said Saskiw.

Denis said that, despite reductions in courtroom space and changes in other criminal justice programs, Alberta will continue to fund programs geared to community safety. He said an announcement is coming soon in Red Deer, but offered no hints about what it would entail.

bkossowan@bprda.wpengine.com

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