Shortage of sheriffs exposes ‘failure to put public safety first’

The NDP is blaming provincial government cost-cutting for the fact an alleged cocaine trafficker was freed because a sheriff was not available to escort him from Victoria courthouse cells to a courtroom.

Opposition critic Mike Farnworth slammed the government Monday for allowing the release of an accused trafficker in the midst of a drug overdose crisis.

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“It is a direct result of the choices of this government … that we don’t have enough sheriffs in the province of British Columbia,” he told the B.C. legislature.

“There were 35 in Victoria. Now, there are just over 21. It’s because of those choices — a failure to put public safety first.”

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said the courts run smoothly “the vast majority of the time” in B.C., and blamed the situation on a “technical reason.”

“I’m informed that this was a case where the accused should have been in court on the Monday, failed to appear and came into custody during the week,” she said.

“The case was rescheduled later in the week, a late scheduling, so that on Friday morning, right at the time the court opened, the resources were not available right then. It did turn out that they were available just a short time later in the day.”

Anton told reporters that the Victoria incident was “a bit of an anomaly.”

But last week, Justice Robert Johnston blamed the situation on “a lack of provincial will to provide the necessary resources.

“More and more frequently in this building — and it is a matter of great distress to both myself and my fellow judges — important criminal matters are delayed … because of a lack of staff like sheriffs and clerks,” he said.

The ongoing sheriff shortage has closed courtrooms, delayed trials and tossed cases out of court around B.C. The Victoria courthouse is particularly hard hit.

On Wednesday, Johnston ordered the arrest of Richard D’Allesandro because he had failed to appear for his trial. Johnston said he ordered D’Allesandro’s detention, expecting that he would have his trial and know his fate on Friday morning.

“I have been presented with a situation where he is not to learn his fate today, not through any fault of his, but because of the lack of provincial will to provide the necessary resources. It seems to me that the fair and just result is to stay proceedings,” said Johnston.

In February 2016, Johnston was forced to shut down a complex trial for want of a clerk. The courtroom was filled with seven lawyers, their support workers and a witness when Johnston adjourned the case. They were all part of a boundary dispute over First Nations Treaty 8, involving a representative of the province, the federal government and five First Nations.

“The province of British Columbia has failed in its constitutional obligation to properly fund the administration of justice,” said Johnston before walking out.

Even when no one is off on sick leave or on long-term disability, staffing is tight in Victoria, said Judge Robert Higinbotham, administrator of the south Island provincial court. Attempts are made to ship in sheriffs from elsewhere in B.C., but they’re not always available.

“The real problem is you just can’t hire anyone off the street for this job. You have to have properly trained people and the next graduating class from the Justice Institute is in June,” Higinbotham said. “I don’t know that it’s a crisis, but it may get to that.”

Anton said the province is doubling the number of sheriff recruits to 48 this year.

“There will be two classes going through the Justice Institute this year and next year, so that we make sure that we do have enough sheriffs in the system so that there’s enough backup when people are sick, for example,” she said.

Dean Purdy, spokesman for the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, said the problem isn’t recruiting sheriffs, but retaining them. Sheriffs are the lowest paid of the enforcement agencies in B.C., he said.

“Sheriffs are paid $56,000 to $60,000 a year. They can’t make a living in Victoria or the Lower Mainland. The government needs to pay the sheriffs properly for the job they do,” Purdy said.

By comparison, the starting salary for an RCMP constable is $50,674. Within three years, the salary increases to $82,100. Victoria police probationary constables start at $64,500. After five years, the salary is $92,165.

lkines@timescolonist.com

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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