When an acquittal can mean no warm clothes to protect from winter’s chill

Funding to provide basic short-term services to inmates being released will keep everyone safe

Michael Spratt

Sometimes an acquittal is cold comfort.


Imagine that you are arrested for a crime you didn’t commit. The charges are serious, and you have been struggling otherwise. You recently lost your job, your housing is unstable, and you live in poverty.

So, as is all too typical in our justice system, bail is denied and you are forced to wait in jail until your trial.

A couple of months pass, summer turns to fall, and by the time your long-anticipated day in court arrives there is snow on the ground and temperatures have fallen below zero.

Then, at your trial, you are vindicated. The judge dismisses the charges and you walk out of court a free person — into a freezing Canadian winter, dressed only in the summer clothes that you were wearing on the day you were arrested.

The sad reality of the Canadian justice system is that inmates are frequently released to fend for themselves and freeze on the street. And people who live in poverty, lack community support, or don’t have stable housing are more likely to be held in custody after they are arrested.

But almost everyone who is in jail, guilty or innocent, will be released at some point. The system, however, offers few practical and immediate supports for people released from custody. Many people walk out of court in the cloths they were arrested in – even if they were arrested in the summer and released into a winter blizzard.

With no formal government programs to ensure safe releases, it is left up to local heroes to make sure people don’t freeze.

In Ottawa, special constable Suzanne Kelly collects winter coats, hats, mitts, and boots for those who would otherwise be released from the courthouse in inadequate clothing.

With no funding, the Ottawa program relies on volunteers and community donations.

Each year, as temperatures in Ottawa drop below freezing, Kelly sends out her yearly email message looking for donations of winter gear. She collects the donations, searches them for safety, stores them and distributes them.

Kelly does this on her own time, and it is only because of her compassion and the generosity of the community that there are not more tragedies.

This year, when the call for winter clothes came, I posted Kelly’s request on social media.

Hundreds of people across Ottawa responded by bringing a flood of winter gear to my office. We have collected hundreds of jackets, boots, hoodies, toques, and gloves. The donated clothing is arriving faster than we can sort it and drop it off at the courthouse.

This year people will be released from the Ottawa courthouse in warm, clean clothes.

But the problem of inadequate release support for inmates is not isolated to our nation’s capital. And, sadly, not every jurisdiction is lucky enough to have a champion such as Special Constable Kelly.

It is not enough to rely on the humanity and selfless generosity of the Suzanne Kellys of the world. The fact is that if Kelly didn’t run the Ottawa program there may not be an Ottawa program.

Politicians from across the political landscape retweeted my plea for winter wear donations.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, Liberal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna, and NDP firebrand Joel Harden all helped spread the word that donations were needed. Generosity and compassion can make odd political bedfellows.

Yet retweets are not enough. There is political and public appetite to make sure that people are not released into freezing weather conditions with inadequate clothing.

There is good reason to treat people with humanity and kindness. It is not only the moral and right thing to do, but it helps build safe communities. Ensuring that people being released from jail have adequate supports fosters rehabilitation and reintegration and decreases the likelihood of recidivism.

But we need stable funding and consistent programs. It is time for the provinces and federal government to step up. The problem is obvious and the solution is simple.

Nobody should be released from custody and wonder where they will spend the night, or how they will get home, or fear that they will freeze to death on the streets.

Modest funding to provide these basic and necessary short-term services will keep our communities safe and the people who live in them safe.

It’s time to stop retweeting and start legislating.

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