The Human Cost of a Broken Bail System

Here are three interactive short stories that put a human face on the bail system. We believe that true-to-life stories based on expert knowledge and lived experience can help build empathy for people trapped in the bail system and provide a sense of urgency for broad new audiences.

We’re seeking feedback from the legal community on our concept, draft plot points, and user interactions.

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Meet Nathan

Nathan is a 26 year old Indigenous man. When he was 17, his older sister went missing and the case remained unresolved. The loss was devastating to him - she his main source of support and her disappearance left him with no one to turn to. 

In his 20s, he accumulated two drug-related charges, which he pleaded guilty to, and one assault charge, which was withdrawn.

More recently, things were looking up. He found a job at a local grocery store and started saving money. He was in a stable, loving relationship, and was planning to start taking courses at a local community college. 


One day at work, Nathan was dealing with a very difficult customer. When the customer used a racial slur against him, Nathan lost his cool. He got into a shouting match and swung the broom he was carrying in a threatening way. The customer said "I'm calling the police!" and left the store.

An hour later Nathan was walking home from work when a police cruiser stopped him in his tracks. Out came three police officers shouting “don’t move.” They pinned Nathan to the ground twisting his arm hard behind his back. Nathan was so confused, angry, and afraid.

He tried to get some answers from the officers. They said, "You're being charged with uttering threats and assault with a weapon."

The Police Station

At the station, the police took away Nathan’s phone and wallet. They said that because of his previous charges, he was going to be detained over night.

He asked to call his partner but the police denied his request. They said he was only entitled to speak with a lawyer. Nathan spoke to a lawyer from Legal Aid Ontario over the phone. Nathan told her about his charges and she said “don’t say anything to the police.” Nathan had so many questions, but the lawyer said she didn’t have time to answer them all.

The Police Station

Nathan was taken to a holding cell that was bare and very cold. There was nowhere to sit and nothing to keep him warm. He sat in the corner of the cell on the cold floor. As the shock of his arrest started to fade, he felt so hungry - he realized that he hadn’t had any food or water in several hours. 

The Courthouse

The next morning, Nathan waited for 3 hours before an officer arrived to take him to the courthouse - by the time he arrived it was already 12 pm.

He was taken into a filthy holding cell. There were stains on the floor, the air stank, and there was no toilet paper. At one point, an officer dropped off two cereal bars and a juice box. Nathan wolfed them down.

A lawyer from Legal Aid Ontario came to meet with him. She said that because he'd arrived late, there wasn't enough time left in the court's schedule today. His hearing had to be adjourned.

Nathan's heart sank. He was exhausted, hungry, and dirty. How was he going to explain missing two days of work to his boss?


At 4 pm, the prisoners in the holding cell were chained together and loaded into a large van dubbed the 'vomit wagon' because there were no seat belts inside and people often threw up.

The drive to the jail was over one hour long. When he arrived, he was strip-searched and then led to a small cell - about 8 by 10 feet - with a bunk bed and a toilet in the corner. The cell was filthy and two people were already asleep on the beds. After using the toilet, Nathan curled up to sleep on a thin mattress on the floor.

Nathan was woken up at 5 am and given another energy bar. He was chained together with a group of prisoners and loaded back into the 'vomit wagon.'

What Happened Next

Nathan was released on bail the next day. Overall, he had spent one night in a police holding cell, a day at the courthouse, a night in jail, and one more day at the court house.

Two weeks later, the Crown Prosecutors withdrew all of his charges.

The consequences of Nathan’s time in jail were severe. He got fired from his job after missing two days of work. He now felt anxious all the time - he had trouble sleeping and often had panic attacks when he saw the police or heard a siren.

Going to college suddenly looked impossible.

Meet Kara

Kara is a single mother with a 6 year-old daughter Olivia. She grew up in a rough neighbourhood and dropped out of high school. She's worked hard to support her daughter and is now a manager a retail clothing store.

Kara has a rocky relationships with her boyfriend Michael. Since he moved in a few months ago, his temper has got worse and he hits more often - but never when Olivia is around. Kara feels that, despite his problems, Michael loves her and he also supports her and Olivia financially.

Michael deals drugs. He's promised to never do any deals anywhere near the apartment. For months, he's been pressuring Kara to help out with the drug business but she keeps pushing him off.


Last week, five police officers burst into Kara's apartment while she, Michael and Olivia were having dinner. The police had been watching Michael for weeks and had seen him engage in several drug transactions in the apartment. They executed a search warrant and found fentanyl, heroin, and cash.

Kara had no idea that Michael was stashing drugs right beside her daughter's bedroom - she was shocked and furious.

Kara and Michael were both arrested for possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking.

What's a "residential surety"?

At Kara's first bail hearing, duty counsel told her that the Crown was opposing her release on bail unless she had a "residential surety."

"What is that?" Kara asked. The Duty Counsel told her that she'd would have need to live with someone who the court thought was trustworthy, who didn't without a criminal record, who could ensure that Kara kept a curfew, and who could pledge at least a $2,000 to the court (in case Kara violated her bail conditions).

Kara couldn't think of anyone in her life who could meet all those conditions and who would be willing to do that for her. Perhaps her mom - but she had a criminal record for dealing drugs almost a decade ago. And Kara's mom lived way across town, far from Olivia's school and Kara's work.

Kara kept racking her brain as she left the courthouse and was taken to jail.

Calling Home

Getting in contact with her family after her arrest was tough. The jail only allowed collect calls to landlines (more than a dollar a minute) and her mom only had a cell phone.

Kara remembered that her friend Amy had a landline. Kara called Amy and asked if Olivia and her mom could come over to Amy's place for a phone call. Kara promised Amy that she'd pay her back.

On the phone a few days later, Olivia refused to talk. With the call costing a dollar per minute, Kara didn’t have the time to get Olivia to open up.

She asked her mom for help in finding a surety. “Are you sure that’s the only way?” Kara’s mom said. “Nobody has any savings these days. And people have been avoiding me since they heard about what happened to you!”

Kara felt so distraught - she needed to find a way to talk to her daughter.

Life in jail

Outside of the weekly call, Kara didn’t talk much to anyone. Her cellmate Nicole clearly had some serious mental health issues as she'd talk to herself and frequently snap at her. Nicole wasn't getting any treatment. Many prisoners on her cell block were addicted to drugs and using a lot. One woman overdosed last week.

Kara felt sick to her stomach about abandoning Olivia. It was impossible for Olivia or her mother to visit her in prison. It would take 2 hours for them get to the jail by public transit and they would only be allowed to stay for 20 minutes. Then they'd have to make another 2 hour trip home.

None of her friends came to visit and she couldn't call anyone as no one had landlines anyways. There was nothing to do her except wait and think. She felt more depressed and isolated every day.

Life in jail

Kara spent so much time thinking about who among her old friends or extended family could be her residential surety. It took days to get in touch with anyone by phone - her mom had to make calls on her behalf.

Thankfully, her duty counsel was able to help out with the calls as well.

Most people said they didn't want to get involved with the court or police at all. After more than two weeks of asking around, her best options were her Mom, James, Jessica and Trey.

The next time she was in bail court, she had a conversation with her duty counsel about whether any of them would be acceptable:

What happened next

In the end Kara couldn’t find a residential surety.

Her duty counsel said that she'd try to explain to the Crown prosecutors that it just wasn't possible to get a residential surety and that Kara was posed a very low risk since she wasn't involved in dealing any drugs.

After a week of back and forth, the Crown finally agreed and released Kara without a residential surety but with a curfew and a pledge by her mother to pay $1,000 if Kara violated her conditions.

By then, Kara had been in jail for about a month. She'd lost her job, missed two rent payments, and barely had enough cash to stay afloat. She was afraid her landlord had found out about the arrest and would try to evict her for her alleged criminal activity.

Kara had to find work but she couldn't work nights because of her curfew.

Months later the Crown prosecutor withdrew all charges against Kara.

Meet George

George is a 31 years old and works as line cook at a fast food restaurant. He has schizophrenia and anxiety but has never been formally diagnosed or ever had regular mental healthcare.

George uses drugs often - it's one of the only ways that he can feel calm and just happy. He used a wide variety of drugs in his 20s and accumulated several drug related convictions.

While he tries to keep his drug use under control, he often can't. He's been fired from a lot of jobs.


George was buying drugs at night when he saw a fight break out between his dealer and another user. He tried to break up the fight but the police soon arrived and he was arrested.

Bail Conditions

At bail court, George met with a duty counsel lawyer from Legal Aid Ontario. She said that, because of Georges past criminal charges, the Crown prosecutor wanted a bail plan that included: a curfew, a non-residential surety, and no contact with George's drug dealer and the other user.

Since George often worked night shifts, he was reluctant to agree to this. Duty counsel said, "I know the JP's personality. There's a good chance we'll lose in a contested hearing if we fight this. But the Crown will consent to your release right now if you agree to these conditions - that's the only way we'll know for sure that you'll get out today."

George agreed and duty counsel helped contact his Aunt Anita who agreed to act as his surety. Anita had acted as his surety last year when he was brought to bail court on drug-related charges.

Working an extra shift

A few weeks after George was released, on a steamy Friday evening at the end of his shift, a coworker didn’t show up for her shift.

George’s boss then threatened that he’d fire George unless George worked an extra three hours to cover his coworker's shift.

If George lost his job, it would be extremely hard for him to get hired somewhere else due to his involvement with the justice system. But he also knew that he would get in trouble if Anita didn’t know about or hadn't agreed to him working extra.

Police Check

Having decided to stay at work, George tried to reach his surety, Anita. He could get through to her by phone and she didn't reply to his texts. The customers were waiting. He put his phone away.

That evening, the police came by his house to check knock on George’s door to make sure he was at home - there was no answer.

What happened next

George was stunned when he came home to a police car and two police officers waiting at his door. He was arrested again for breaking bail conditions and now had more charges than before.

Breaking bail conditions is an Administration of Justice offense extremely difficult to get bail for. As a result, George planned to plead guilty for failing to comply just so he could have better access to mental health care programs as a sentenced prisoner.