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B.C. beefs up sheriff jobs as riot cases head to court

The province's court sheriffs are in for a busy time dealing with the deluge of cases from the Stanley Cup riots.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The province's restoration of 34 full-time deputy sheriff positions that were cut last month may ease some pressure off the provincial court system, but it will not be enough to deal with the deluge of cases that will result from Stanley Cup riot arrests, said the NDP and B.C Conservative Party on Tuesday.

On May 27, the province cut the hours of 28 auxiliary deputy sheriffs and 24 part-time sheriffs, or the equivalent of 34 full-time positions, to balance the budget. Those positions were restored last Wednesday prior to Game 7, according to Attorney-General Barry Penner.

"It is a tiny step in the right direction, but it still means we're down roughly 20 per cent from where we were a few years ago in terms of total sheriffs," said Leonard Krog, NDP critic for the Attorney General. "When [Christy Clark]made the announcement that everyone will be prosecuted, we pointed out, 'Well, you don't have a justice system that can.'"

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B.C Conservative Party Leader John Cummins said the sheriff services were already "stretched to the limit" before the cuts were made, and that the restoration of the 34 full-time positions will be inadequate to deal with the volume of riot-related charges.

Sheriffs provide security within courtrooms, maintain proper decorum, escort prisoners and run metal detectors for high-security cases. In the last two years, the number of sheriffs have decreased from 525 to approximately 385 due to a hiring freeze and people retiring or switching jobs.

Since the cuts in May, deputy sheriffs have been deployed on a roving basis, so they can provide security simultaneously in several courtrooms. However, at least 28 trials have been suspended or cancelled because deputy sheriffs were not there to provide security.

The province did not make an official announcement, but Mr. Penner said on Tuesday that the decision to increase the hours of auxiliary and part-time deputy sheriffs was made last Wednesday at noon, after he had discussed the issue with several judges and the Premier.

"We did not want to see a trial be delayed or dismissed because judges were uncomfortable proceeding without a sheriff being physically present in the courtroom," he said.

Even with the restored positions, an additional 40 to 50 sheriffs will be needed to properly staff the province's courthouses, said Dean Purdy, chair of the union representing B.C. sheriffs.

"We are pleased that the Attorney General's office has returned hours to those they cut three weeks ago, but it's more of a Band-Aid solution," he said. "The real problem is the continued shortage of sheriffs within B.C. We're seeing more and more high-profile gang trials going on within our courthouses; and to not properly staff those, and to not have search gates [metal detectors]set up in major courthouses, is wrong."

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Mr. Penner said his office will be working with the Ministry of Finance to identify additional funding to cover the reinstated sheriff positions. He would not confirm whether the possibility of crime and violence after Game 7 influenced his decision to reverse the cuts.

"It's very interesting timing," said Mr. Krog. "I can't imagine why the government will withhold an announcement that would be so well received."

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