Sheriff shortage needs a solution
A trial shrunk to one hour. Two cases adjourned. Courtrooms closed for two days. Trials delayed two hours. The shortage of sheriffs is cramping the justice system.
The NDP government didn’t create this problem, but it has certainly inherited it. And solving it won’t be any easier for Premier John Horgan than it was for Christy Clark.
With the problems facing the justice system, all of which seem to throttle it down to a glacial pace, finding enough sheriffs seems as if it should be easily solved. Not so.
Lawyers and police officers might be bogged down by onerous requirements for pre-trial disclosure. Judges might be swamped with cases. Plaintiffs and defendants might be doing their best to gum up the works.
But finding enough people to move prisoners around and provide security at courthouses is turning into just as big a bottleneck. And it’s not as simple as hiring a few more of them. The province is already doing that.
A class of 30 recruits graduated from the Justice Institute two weeks ago, which gives a total of 490 in the province. But not every courthouse is getting one of the new sheriffs.
Last week, provincial court Judge Loretta Chaperon said it was “appalling” that her courtroom was delayed for two hours because of the shortage of sheriffs. A witness who was in custody and a police officer who was testifying on his day off were left cooling their heels.
When things finally got under way about 11:30 a.m., the Crown prosecutor warned they would have to wrap up by 2 p.m. because the sheriff had to be sent somewhere else.
The week before, provincial court Judge Carmen Rogers adjourned two cases because of the lack of sheriffs.
Courtrooms in Victoria were closed on Monday and Wednesday and trials were delayed two hours on Tuesday.
These painfully familiar problems are now the headache of Attorney General David Eby, who acquired them, along with a partial solution, from the previous government.
The solution was to put an additional $2.7 million into training more sheriffs, and Eby is continuing that project, even though it hasn’t yet plugged all the holes.
A major issue is getting sheriffs to stay. The RCMP and municipal police forces, losing officers to retirement, see sheriffs and corrections officers as prime targets for recruitment. The police offer better pay, more responsibility and broader scope for people interested in law enforcement.
The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union maintains that raising the pay scale is one part of the answer.
Sheriffs are paid $58,000 a year, while the average salary of a municipal police officer is $93,000. The union says raising sheriffs’ pay to $71,000 would help stem the outflow.
Eby, sounding like his Liberal predecessors, says collective bargaining is the appropriate place to talk about pay increases.
Is a raise going to solve this problem? For many people who want to get into law enforcement, the greater challenge, responsibility and opportunity for advancement makes police work more attractive.
That suggests it will take more than dollars to keep sheriffs on the job.
In Alberta, sheriffs also do surveillance, investigation and traffic enforcement. Does the broader scope improve retention? Giving B.C. sheriffs more duties outside the courthouse might aid retention, but would obviously not ease the bottleneck in our courtrooms.
The shortage of sheriffs is part of a much bigger problem with the justice system that cannot be fixed by orders from the Supreme Court. It demands creative thinking.