Federal inmates across the country are joining forces in twin class-action claims against the federal government over a 2011 law that prolonged prison time for non-violent offenders by abolishing early parole provisions.
As many as 5,000 inmates could eventually join a group seeking unspecified damages for Charter-infringing extensions to their incarceration, according to Stephan Thliveris, one of the three lawyers who drafted the claims filed in Federal Court in Vancouver on Tuesday.
At issue is the Abolition of Early Parole Act, a key part of the Harper Conservatives’ crime-fighting agenda that was passed three days before the 2011 election was called. It eliminated the practice known as accelerated parole, which granted first-time, non-violent offenders the opportunity for parole after serving one-sixth of their sentence.
Despite repeated warnings that it would be unconstitutional, the government stipulated that the measure would apply retroactively, meaning all inmates eligible for accelerated parole had their early release dates delayed.
Three years later, a unanimous Supreme Court of Canada decision ruled that the retroactive application of the new law against a sentenced offender amounted to being punished a second time for the same offence, a contravention of Section 11(h) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
One of the claims filed on Tuesday addresses inmates who were serving sentences in prison when their early parole dates were lengthened by as many as 35 months. Lead counsel Tonia Grace writes in the claim that Ottawa only extended the law retroactively to quash any accelerated parole eligibility for Earl Jones, the high-profile Montreal fraudster.
“It appears they wanted to avoid public outrage about Earl Jones,” Mr. Thliveris said. “They sold our clients down the river for votes. It was easy because a lot of clients were already in the river.”
The second claim deals with offenders who had been charged but not convicted. Their issues were not addressed in the Supreme Court decision, but several lower courts have ruled in their favour, citing Section 11(i) of the Charter stating that if the law is altered during the time between an offender committing a crime and the time of sentencing, they can opt for the lesser of the two punishments.
The federal Justice Minister’s office was unable to respond to queries about the class-action late Friday, but the Prime Minister has pledged to review all criminal-justice legislation passed under the Conservatives.
“The timeline on this will ultimately depend on the instructions from the new government,” Mr. Thliveris said, “which hopefully is a friendlier government than Mr. Harper’s regime.”