VICTORIA - A shortage of courthouse sheriffs has resulted in two accused drug dealers being freed without facing justice, sparking an uproar in British Columbia's legislature with the Opposition New Democrats accusing the government of cost-cutting during a deadly overdose crisis.
Mike Farnworth, the NDP's public safety critic, said Thursday it's outrageous two men accused of cocaine and heroin trafficking did not face trial because there weren't enough sheriffs available to protect and monitor the courtrooms.
He said the accused heroin dealer was smiling when the Victoria judge told him Wednesday he was free to leave the court. Last week, cocaine trafficking charges against a Victoria man were stayed when a sheriff was not available to be present in the courtroom.
“It sickens the public,” said Farnworth. “Can the attorney general tell this house why her government would rather see this drug dealing thug, accused drug dealing thug, walk free than ensure there are enough sheriffs in the courtrooms of British Columbia.”
He said the government has been cutting sheriff positions during the last four years, reducing the numbers from more than 500 provincewide to about 420. In Victoria, the sheriffs numbers have been cut from 35 to 21, said Farnworth.
“This government is guilty of under valuing the work of sheriffs in B.C.,” Farnworth said. “This attorney general and this government are guilty of causing the chaos in our courtrooms.”
Attorney General Suzanne Anton said there has been a shortage of sheriffs at the Victoria courthouse in the past few days due to sickness and staffing issues, but help is on the way.
She said she has an extra $2.6 million in her budget to address sheriff issues and 48 new sheriffs are currently in training classes, with 24 recruits available in May and the other 24 ready for duty in October.
“It's our goal every single day to make sure all the courtrooms that are open and needed in British Columbia are properly resource,” said Anton.
B.C. court spokesman Bruce Cohen said the chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court plans to look into the issue.
Sheriffs are required to transport accused people to court and monitor and protect courtrooms.