‘Accidental’ prisoner releases: Notes towards a fix

(Walter Sanderson/Winnipeg Police Service)

Manitoba Justice officials have, quite rightly, no problem tossing the Brian Sinclair hot potato to Saskatchewan for an independent assessment of the Winnipeg Police Service probe into his death.

And when it comes to so-called ‘mistaken’ releases of prisoners from provincial jails, one would think Saskatchewan would be the logical place to start researching a fix, given their recent history.

In 2007-08, our banjo-pickin’, ‘have province’ neighbours faced a number of their own embarrassing problems with prisoners sent packing from jail by accident. And, to be fair, they still do.

Two full reviews (Full, detailed PDFs of investigation breakdown are attached) were conducted that identified communications errors to be largely behind the problem and led to reporting improvements — including those to the public at large — as a stepping stone to address the issue.

In the case of last week’s accidental release of convicted killer Wally Sanderson from Headlingley, there’s been much gnashing of teeth, resulting in a slew of ink about the problem we face.

An editorial in today’s WFP, however, was probably the most salient I’ve seen yet, and I link to it here. (Other pieces, including comments from Justice officials etc. also linked.)

Given what the WFP called today the “opaque and unhelpful” response from a Manitoba Justice spokesperson about what may have led to Sanderson’s release, I offer this observation based on a hunch from what I’ve seen in the courts over the past few years:

The issue is likely the same as Saskatchewan faced, that being, one of communication breakdowns.

Why? Because of outdated technology and how data is shared between public-safety departments, I humbly submit.

Winnipeg Police, naturally, use their own records management system (NICHE) to document their work and is necessarily separate and independent of the Justice department’s systems. RCMP also use a similar, but different system (PROS).

Provincial courts use a system called, correct me on the acronym, CAIN, to track the progress of charges, dates and dispositions, and Manitoba Corrections uses a system called COMS. There’s also likely another used by Crown attorneys to case-manage their files. Not to mention the probation department.

In any event, that’s at least three or four separate electronic database systems used to make the justice system go.

Without ever having had a chance to tool around with the systems myself (ha!), I can say from a user-interface perspective that all three are ugly, difficult for staff to navigate and slow.

Watching a Crown lawyer wrestle with systems challenges or lags in the middle of a court appearance is not an uncommon site.

Waiting for the provincial court systems to update is also a frequent occurrence.

To get to the point: It’s my belief that if we’re going to fix communications errors in local public-safety departments, likely the easiest way to start is by contemplating an overhaul of the IT infrastructure in Manitoba Justice. And no, it won’t be cheap.

Consider one of the main points of court reform advanced by the Manitoba Bar Association that fell on deaf ears during the recent election:

In terms of process, it was noted that courts have been slow to adopt new technologies and continue to rely too heavily upon a paper based system. It was noted that Manitoba lags behind other jurisdictions in that electronic filing of documents is not permitted, and court documents cannot be accessed online. This is an issue of particular concern to rural lawyers in communities that are not Court centres.

In other words: outdated infrastructure is letting the system fall behind. And in this day and age of simple-to-use but powerful tech, that’s inexcusable.

As Winnipeg’s mayor has often implied of late, if the infrastructure is broke, everything else suffers too.

It’s an independent Alberta consultant conducting the review Justice Minister Andrew Swan says will provide directions to correct the prisoner-release problem.

At the same time, work on Alberta police’s controversial TALON data-sharing system continues. While issues around TALON continue to be debated, it’s impossible to ignore the root sentiment behind calls for its existence:

Innovate or perish.

OTHER NOTES:

As I commented on the Free Press editorial, I remain hopeful — perhaps naively so — that officials will do the right thing and release the full consultant’s review of mistaken releases to the public as Saskatchewan appears to have done in 2008.

I concede it would be out of character for the government to do this, crime — and possible solutions to it — being completely over-politicized and all.

For an example of this: All one needs to do is look at the way in which news of Sanderson’s accidental release came out.

  • FRIDAY: OCTOBER 14: Sanderson is released by mistake from Headlingley.
  • SUNDAY, OCTOBER 16: Sanderson is accused of an assault and failing to abide by conditions of probation (Yes, court documents list the offence dates as this day — two days after he was mistakenly sprung).
  • MONDAY OCTOBER 17: Police issue a notice to the public saying Sanderson is wanted for the above allegations. They do not mention the accidental release. The initial stories back this up.
  • TUESDAY, OCTOBER 18: Manitoba Justice confirms Sanderson’s mistaken release, not by sending out a notice to the media, but by responding to reporters’ queries.
  • THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19: Sanderson is arrested by RCMP near Rosser.

I leave it to you readers, to consider the timeline carefully and draw your own conclusions.

I will leave you with this exerpt from the Paul Turenne’s story (Winnipeg Sun) on Tuesday, October 18:

The Manitoba Justice spokeswoman said the government notifies police immediately when an accidental release occurs, then leaves it up to police whether they feel it’s necessary to notify the public.

“It is the police who have the difficult and unenviable task of having to look for and re-arrest the person, and the police release the information to the public they feel is needed to accomplish that most important task. We wouldn’t want to do anything or say anything that could interfere with a police investigation,” the spokeswoman said.

Winnipeg police issued a notification Monday asking for help in locating Walter Sanderson, but the release didn’t mention Sanderson had been released accidentally.

A spokesman for Winnipeg police said the service wasn’t trying to be secretive; they just didn’t feel it was necessary to say why he was on the loose.

“He was wanted and that’s the bottom line. We just wanted to focus on the job at hand,” the spokesman said.

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