A sexual predator who was beaten by his fellow inmates and, on one occasion, a guard, while waiting for his trial has had his 12-year sentence cut in half because of the violation of his rights.
The Alberta ruling adds to a small but growing body of cases in which judges have called out jailhouse administrators for violating prisoners' rights to be free from cruel and unusual treatment.
And it breaks new ground by giving David Spencer Adams more than three days of credit for each day he spent in pretrial custody – six years credit for 20 months behind bars – despite a federal law intended to cap such credit at 1.5 days.
"There has been and I suspect there remains the notion that prisoners have no rights and deserve whatever ill treatment they may suffer," Justice Terry Clackson of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench said in his ruling this week.
"Indeed that sentiment was expressed by Stockwell Day relatively recently." (In 1997, Mr. Day, then Alberta treasurer, suggested that "moral prisoners" should deal with child serial killer Clifford Olson.)
But, Justice Clackson said, "criminals are still people entitled to basic human rights and the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] extends into that environment the same way it extends into all environments." Previous cases in Ontario in the past two years have gone beyond 1.5 days, but stopped short of triple credit.
Mr. Adams, now 22, preyed on a dozen teenage girls, some as young as 13, by luring them over the Internet into sexual activity and sharing pornographic images. He was convicted of multiple counts of sexual interference, uttering threats, criminal harassment, distributing child pornography and luring a child. His lawyer, Tom Engel of Edmonton, had asked Justice Clackson to stay the proceedings because of the rights violations, which he said included at least eight months of solitary confinement. Justice Clackson said this was not the appropriate case to examine the wisdom of provincial policies on segregation, and he said a sentence reduction was a less sensational way of "rehabilitating and restoring the integrity of our justice system."
The judge spent seven weeks of court time hearing Mr. Adams's application for a stay, at a time when Alberta courts are so overburdened that a first-degree murder charge was dismissed this fall because of excessive delay. Seven weeks is longer than most murder trials last.
An Alberta prosecutor argued that inmates' rough treatment of Mr. Adams was beyond the guards' control. Justice Clackson called that "naive" in a maximum-security environment in which Mr. Adams was confined to his cell up to 23 hours a day. (The judge said solitary confinement was one factor justifying extra credit.) He said guards are well aware of the "lynch-mob mentality."
"Somehow it is alright to categorize all such inmates as whipping boys who must accept and expect to be badly treated. These notions are ridiculous and wrong and the leaders of our institutions need to do everything in their power to eradicate this reprehensible attitude and the behaviours it encourages." He added, "A guard does not get to walk into a prisoner's cell and beat him."
Phone calls to the remand centre were directed to the department of the Justice Minister and Solicitor-General, which oversees it. Minister Kathleen Ganley said in an e-mail that she could not comment on the specifics while the government could still appeal the ruling, but "the safety of our inmates and correctional centre staff are of paramount importance to our government."
In 2010, the federal Conservatives passed the Truth in Sentencing Act, which set out to limit credit for pretrial custody to one day for each day served, with exceptional cases capped at 1.5 days. But a 2014 Supreme Court ruling in R v Summers said 1.5 days should be the norm. (Before 2010, two days credit was the norm, and poor remand conditions such as overcrowding drew three days credit for each day served.) Justice Clackson cited a ruling last year by Ontario Court Justice Melvyn Green, who said the quality of a remand prisoner's incarceration may, if worse than the norm, reduce the sentence.
Efrat Arbel, who specializes in prison law at the University of British Columbia's Allard School of Law, said the case tells other judges that it's not not enough to do a mechanical application of the 1.5 rule. "The tendency among sentencing judges is just to look at the numbers. This decision establishes an important precedent because it says that's not enough. The deep probe into the quality of confinement, to use the judge's words, is an essential step forward. That's something that critics and academics have been calling for for decades."
Mr. Engel expressed disappointment with the ruling, saying the credit was too small. "This sort of case where you only get three to one doesn't really send a message to government and it's the reason why government ignores these sorts of rulings."