A Lethbridge MLA is defending cuts to the province's courts and justice system.
Cuts in last week's provincial budget have resulted in cancellation of frequently used "intermittent sentence" jail terms for low-risk offenders. Justice Minister Jonathan Denis also said prosecutors will be taking a more lenient approach to people charged with vandalism and shoplifting.
"The justice department is trying to save some costs," said Greg Weadick, the Conservative MLA for Lethbridge West. "This is what they had to cut."
Not allowing Albertans to serve short sentences on a series of weekends will affect many families, he agreed.
"The judges will have to look at what other options they have," Weadick said. "Maybe they could use house arrest."
At the same time, he said prosecutors will be asked to find ways to keep shoplifters, vandals and others committing "minor" offences out of the court system. That should provide more court time for serious cases, Weadick said.
Abolishing intermittent sentences will save the Conservative government less than $1 million, a department official said. That was the cost of locking them up weekends in a separate part of the provincial prisons.
Scrapping the province's electronic monitoring system, meanwhile, will save another $1.8 million.
In Lethbridge, Legal Aid lawyer Brett Carlson predicted many will be affected by the government's cuts. Working people who've had a minor brush with the law have - until now - been able to deal with their charge, serve jail time each weekend and learn their lesson.
Now they'll likely lose their jobs, possibly throwing their families onto the province's welfare rolls.
"That will mean a loss of self-esteem and a loss of their contribution to society."
Carlson warns that may result in anyone facing a charge that could lead to a short jail term, to try putting off their court appearance as long as possible.
"It will discourage people from entering an early plea," he says, so more court time will be required.
For students, Carlson says, a youthful misdemeanour could result in the loss of a whole college or university year.
"I can't think of any trade or academic program that lets you take a few months off."
Alberta judges have been able to order intermittent sentences for many years and Carlson says he hasn't heard anything indicating they're not effective.
"I don't know if any objective analysis has been done," so lawyers are shocked by the government's decision.
"If we were going to save millions and millions of dollars," it might make sense to consider the program's demise, Carlson said. "But for a relatively paultry amount, I don't think so."
Greg White, one of the city's busiest criminal defence lawyers, is no less critical.
"I think it's short-sighted and it will lead to further problems," he said.
Lawyers and others working in Alberta's justice system were not consulted before the intermittent option was eliminated, White says. But the option helped many people.
"People make foolish but criminal mistakes," he said.
First-time offenders and people involved in minor crimes still deserve the opportunity to turn their lives around, White said. That's what intermittent sentences encouraged.
"People have careers and families and young children," but the government's cost-cutting puts those families at risk.
If a short prison sentence disrupts all that, White added, there's also a danger that some will turn to a life of crime as their only alternative.
Alberta's defence lawyers will likely meet and then call on the government to reinstate the program, he predicted.
"It's been such a good tool for our justice system."