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'Setting people up to fail': SFU study criticizes bail conditions in Vancouver courts

Ordering people to stay away from 'no-go zones' can be counterproductive, says researcher

People on bail for drug offences are often ordered to stay away from the Downtown Eastside.

Jen St. Denis / Metro Order this photo

People on bail for drug offences are often ordered to stay away from the Downtown Eastside.

Releasing people on bail on the condition they do not go to the Downtown Eastside sets them up for failure, according to research from three Canadian universities.

Judges often order people on bail to avoid certain ‘no-go zones’ or ‘red zones’ in an effort to prevent them from committing crimes. But it, in fact, does the exact opposite, says SFU geography professor Nicholas Blomley.

“These are people who have yet to be found guilty of an offence,” he said.

“You’re setting people up to fail and fail in ways that are harmful to them as well. A drug user can’t access a safe injection site, for example, or a sex trade worker who now has to go somewhere even more dangerous than where he or she was already working.”

The vast majority of people charged with drug offences and released on bail with conditions– 92 per cent – were required to stay away from the Downtown Eastside, according to the study, which looked at court records from 1982 to 2012.

Blomley and other researchers from University of Ottawa and University of Montreal interviewed people who had been subjected to red-zone bail conditions and found many violated them because that’s where they could access food, family, and housing.

“So now, [they] have committed an offence,” he said.

Violating a bail condition is considered a crime against the administration of justice, which means people caught in ‘red zones’ can then be put back in jail until their court date. But this practice has resulted in jails being filled with more people awaiting trial than people who have actually be found guilty, said Blomley. In fact, 57 per cent of adults in provincial prisons are in pre-trial detention, according to the study.

Blomley and other experts call the phenomenon "a revolving door," where the justice system keeps people cycling in and out of jail.

Imposing ‘red zones’ as a bail condition also ties up valuable court time – “40% of all criminal cases in B.C. included an offence against the administration of justice, with failure to comply with a bail order and breach of probation being the top ranked offences,” the study states.

Blomley says these problems would be solved if judges simply stuck to what the Criminal Code mandates, which is that if a person is deemed eligible for bail, they should be released “unconditionally and on the least onerous grounds.”

Instead, bail conditions are applied in 97 per cent of cases, according to the study.

Blomley says judges should stay away from imposing ‘red zone’ conditions and instead favour harm reduction strategies while people await trial.

Law professor Marie-Eve Sylvestre from the University of Ottawa was the lead author of the study, titled, Red Zones and other Spatial Conditions of Release Imposed on Marginalized People in Vancouver.

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