What’s up with Dave Chomiak?

Earlier this month, Dave Chomiak, Alberta justice minister Alison Redford, and federal justice minister Rod Nicholson faced a Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs to advocate for the elimination of the two-for-one credit for remanded inmates. Chomiak and Redford, claiming they needed to catch a plane out of Ottawa, left the meeting early to hold a press conference highlighting their belief that Liberal senators are “soft” on crime. The next week, Liberal senator Joan Fraser raised a point of privilege in the Senate, claiming that Chomiak and Redford were in contempt of Parliament.

Contempt of Parliament is a term used when an individual prevents a parliamentarian or committee from doing their work. The original bill (C-32) would eliminate two for one credit, reducing it to a day and a half, granted at a judges discretion and only in special circumstances. The Senate was reconsidering it’s elimination. The justice minister had every right to hold a press conference voicing his outlook on this issue.

“I don’t think that Chomiak was in contempt and I think it’s foolish of the Senate to raise that as an issue,” said Kelvin Goertzen, the Progressive Conservative justice critic. “Petty politics like this shows the Senate really has nothing better to do.”

“No , Dave Chomiak should not be held in contempt,” said Jim Cotton, the author of the prominent Manitoba Post blog. “I don’t stand up for Chomiak very often, but what they are suggesting is a joke.”

Although Chomiak should not be held in contempt (especially by an unelected and unaccountable group of senators) his fixation on the two-for-one credit is troublesome and misplaced.

Over the course of my research for the article in Issue 8, I was struck by the words “disaster” and “incompetence” that were consistently used to describe Chomiak and the Manitoba justice system.

“Chomiak and the NDP have had 10 years to get on this two-for-one issue, and just now they are talking about it because they know they are in trouble. Problem is, it’s going to result in more overcrowding in the future because inmates will be doing more time. We need another provincial jail, I don’t understand why Chomiak is so afraid to admit that,” Cotton said.

“The NDP have been more concerned with media management and getting favorable headlines so that it appears they’re doing something about crime,” said Kelvin Goertzen. “But they’re actually not doing anything.”

If it wasn’t for the insight provided by professor Michael Weinrath, I would have dismissed these arguments as two guys bitching about what they view as mismanagement. However, Weinrath pointed out that there has been staggeringly little research done on the two-for-one issue and that the research he conducted demonstrated the opposite from what Chomiak and others have espoused.

The consensus among inmates was that remand is dead time and that they would not advise, or encourage, their lawyers to keep them there. It has been commonly assumed, Weinrath said, that the two-for-one credit gums up the justice system. There is very little concrete evidence to back up this assumption. I understand the arguments espoused by Chomiak and others. If inmates have a predominant will to go to trial and to speed up sentencing, why, they would argue, do we have so many inmates sitting in remand? Is it all due to bad defense lawyers?

I think the answer to these questions is obvious. The recommendation of the Manitoba Association of Crown Attorney’s itself is astonishing (70 new attorneys in seven years), let alone the current 319 average caseload for prosecutors in the province. Without adequate time to prepare and without proper resources, it is no wonder inmates are kept in remand. Additionally, a CBC report published in early October found that nearly every provincial prison is overcrowded, with some exceeding double their actual capacity. 

So what’s up with Dave Chomiak? Is his vocal presence in federal debate a means to distract the media from real issues in the provincial justice system?