Provincial Crown prosecutors are swamped and short staffed across the province, leaving some rural residents without justice.
Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association president Dallas Sopko said Monday the Crown prosecutor's office is stretched, with 47 out of 378 prosecutor jobs unfilled across the province, with 1,200 serious cases at risk of being stayed.
Sopko said the problem is worse in rural communities, where it becomes even more difficult to retain staff.
“It’s a revolving door and people are coming and going all the time,” Sopko said.
The province has announced it will be hiring 50 more Crown prosecutors, with a commitment to hire 20 by the end of 2022-23, but Sopko said creating new positions isn’t helpful when they can’t fill the current vacancies.
“The real problem is, as the government keeps telling the public, they are committed to hire 50 prosecutors under the rural crime initiative and the public safety initiative but there [are] 47 vacancies,” Sopko said.
The province added 50 new positions five years ago to help with rising case loads across the province, but with 47 vacant positions, Sopko said it successfully filled three of those positions in the five years.
Positions are difficult to fill in Alberta, as offices are swamped and Crown prosecutors have a huge workloads.
“We’re just overwhelmed and it’s a product of not being able to retain and attract people,” Sopko said.
In a survey conducted last month by the Alberta Crown Attorneys’ Association, 95 per cent of them said they were burned out from their work, and 85 per cent said they attended court underprepared. Some 85 per cent said they think the outcome in court may have been different if they had more time to prepare.
The huge workload results in staff burning out, and has an impact on their mental health, Sopko said.
“From a mental-health perspective, where you're overwhelmed, we're asking junior people to take on more and more senior cases and then we don’t have supports in place that other provinces do,” Sopko said.
In Alberta, Crown prosecutors get three or four appointments with a mental-health professional per year, which is not enough to support someone who is struggling with their mental health, Sopko said.
Other provinces have better mental-health supports, and also pay more.
In B.C. Crown prosecutors can expect to make 23-per-cent more than in Alberta, and in Ontario they can make 25-per-cent more.
Even in Alberta, the federal Crown's office is a more lucrative option for provincial Crown prosecutors.
In Alberta there are both federal Crown prosecutors and provincial Crown prosecutors. Sopko represents provincial Crown prosecutors, who deal with most cases in Alberta.
Lawyers who are currently working as provincial Crown prosecutors, can even expect to make 18-per-cent more in Alberta working for the federal Crown, which has an office in Edmonton.
And because offices are so strapped, young lawyers are being asked to take on difficult cases, such as child sexual assault cases, which puts even more pressure on those who are filling in the roles.
With Crown prosecutors facing so many challenges in the province, many choose to leave. Sopko said Alberta has become a training ground for lawyers who come to Alberta to get a few years of experience, and then leave the province for better pay and working conditions. It makes for high turnover in many offices.
The Wetaskawin office tried to hire three new Crown prosecutors in the past few weeks but only had one qualified candidate apply for the job.
In St. Paul, the average time a Crown prosecutor spends in the office is 16 months. In the last five years, the St. Paul office has had 19 prosecutors rotate in and out of six permanent positions. Those who rotate in are young, with little experience. They work with one head prosecutor who has more experience.
“[The rural offices] are the ones who suffer the most from the brain drain,” Sopko said.
“Once they’re capable of running trials on their own, then they leave and go to these other places like B.C. and Ontario because they’re a valuable employee to those places.”
As they leave, files change hands. Multiple prosecutors may work on one file as it proceeds through court.
Right now in St. Paul, there are four Crown prosecutors managing 1,795 files, which works out about 450 files each, Sopko said. Province-wide, Crown prosecutors typically manage 200 files.
Of those 1,795 files there 17 active homicides, which take around a month of work to prep for and around three weeks to run a trial for.
On the Oct. 24 docket in St. Paul there were 100 accused, with 200 separate police files. Some 183 of them were for serious offences such as violence, robberies, weapons, and sexual offences. Sopko said there were too many rural property offences to count from the office.
With so many cases and so few prosecutors, the justice system has been enacting a triage protocol, where it focuses on serious and violent offences first and less serious offences are stayed, a process where further legal proceedings are halted.
In places such as St. Paul, in the last few years there have been hundreds of files which are viable cases, where police have put in the resources to investigate them, and the Crown's office doesn’t have the resources to pursue them.
“We're having to tell victims, ‘Sorry, you're not going to get your day in court,’” Sopko said.
Many of these people are suffering from the rural crime wave the province is attempting to quell, Sopko said, as there are repeat offenders going onto property to steal and cut catalytic converters out of farm equipment. Impaired driving cases and those who are breaching conditions are also not being further pursued by the Crown’s office.
When offices are working through cases, they are racing against the clock, as they must resolve them within a certain amount of time or they must be stayed.
Right now, Sopko said there are 1,200 serious or violent cases in provincial court that are at risk of being stayed due to the Jordan decision, which established the timelines that trials must be heard by. In the provincial court, trials must be heard within 18 months.
“We’re basically feeling at each end of the spectrum. We're having to tell victims, many of them in rural places, ‘Sorry, we don't have the time because we need to focus on the more serious cases.’ And then even then, there's 1,200 serious cases that are currently at risk,” Sopko said.
While the province invests money into assessing if it will start its own police force and whether to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more to stop rural crime, Sopko said it could make a big impact with changes to Crown offices with a fraction of the money.
“If they can come up with these hundreds of millions of dollars for a police force, why can’t they find a fraction of that to ensure that the end result of these files that the police prosecute is something we’re all happy with?”