Single moms attending the University of Calgary part-time may no longer have to go to jail if they ride the C-Train without a ticket.
The Poverty Reduction Coalition plans to start a pilot program for 50 women who would otherwise be incarcerated for petty offences and divert them to Social Services, Family Counselling or Diversion Services said Dr. Loreen Gilmour, the coalition's new director.
Until now, the women were automatically incarcerated for two days if they did not pay the $150 fine for riding the C-Train without a ticket.
"For some women this is a catastrophe," said Gilmour. "They cannot come up with the money."
Part-time U of C students do not qualify for the U of C transit pass.
Approximately 150 women are jailed each year for C-Train violations and other petty offences in Calgary, such as smoking in a public place, petty theft and public disorder, said Gilmour.
Some do not have enough money for child care while in the Remand Centre and Social Services has to take away their children, she explained.
"They then have to try to get their kids back."
Although women who are working will probably not lose their job for being incarcerated, some cannot pay the rent at the end of the month when two days of their pay is docked, she added. This can result in eviction and possible homelessness.
The Poverty Reduction Coalition, supported by Calgary's United Way, also develops ways to increase affordable housing, economic well-being, support women and children while raising community engagement and awareness. There are currently 70 volunteers involved.
Occasionally, women fined for petty offences find themselves in the same cell as other women who have committed more serious crimes, even murder. Some social workers attribute this to fewer female inmates overall and therefore less space.
"They attend crime university," said Gilmour.
On the other hand, men incarcerated for C-Train offences find themselves segregated from hard-core criminals.
Two days of incarceration for one woman costs taxpayers about $1,400, said Gilmour. Incarceration for petty offences totals $29 million a year.
The Poverty Reduction Coalition calls such offences "crimes of desperation" and released a report by the same name last year advocating a change in the way the city and the justice system deals with them.
"We're not saying that people should not be held accountable for their actions, but we should change the system so that we are not making their situation worse," she said.
Gilmour and Poverty Reduction Coalition chairs Jim Dinning and Nancy Laird met with Justice Minister Alison Redford about the issue in the fall.
"The minister recognizes that what they need is social services, not jail time," said Gilmour.
The Poverty Reduction Coalition now wants to test the hypothesis that impoverished women found guilty of petty crimes need addictions or mental health counselling or job training "to give them a hand up." If this hypothesis proves to be true, the project may continue indefinitely.
The coalition plans to hire a social worker, preferably with experience in the field of mental health for the project. The worker will let women know if they or their children qualify for government benefits or services, such as subsidies for rent, child care, prescription drugs or dental care.
According to Statistics Canada, at least 110,000 Calgarians live below the poverty line. United Way is now researching the underlying causes of social problems like poverty. Last year, the organization raised $40.8 million in Calgary alone for a variety of programs and agencies.