HALIFAX -- A record number of inmates have been released from Canadian prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Nova Scotia is leading the nation.

Days after the pandemic was declared in March, Halifax lawyer Mark Knox was contacted by a Crown prosecutor regarding a client who had been denied bail.

“He called me out of the blue and we worked to get the client out of jail,” says Knox. “It was a person who had a multitude of property-related offences, and one offence of violence.”

The number of people who are incarcerated in Canada went down nationwide between February and April, but nowhere more than provincial jails in Nova Scotia.

According to data from Statistics Canada, Nova Scotia’s provincial inmate population declined the most, at 41 per cent between February and April.

Prince Edward Island saw 30 per cent of inmates released, and New Brunswick saw a 21-per-cent decline in prisoners.

These declines came as Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asked the federal prison service and the parole board back in March to look at releasing some inmates early to slow the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons.

In response, Canadian justice and correctional systems have taken several steps to reduce the number of people in custody, including early release of low-risk offenders, extended parole and implementing alternatives to those awaiting a trial or sentencing.

“The majority of these offenders in provincial institutions are relatively low risk, so the crimes they’ve been convicted of, or are awaiting trial for, are not necessarily serious criminal offences, because they’re two years less a day,” explains Michael Boudreau, a criminology professor at St. Thomas University.

The goal is to slow the spread of COVID-19, but advocates say there are long-term lessons that can be learned.

“Defence attorneys and judges have all been part of the decision-making processes,” says Robert Wright, a social worker and sociologist.

Wright says public safety would have been central to any discussion on who could be sent home.

“It turns out there are a significant number of people who were previously incarcerated, who were judged that they could be safely managed in the community,” explains Wright.

Wright says there are support programs available for people who are leaving the jail system, but not nearly enough.

“So if we did have the supports and resources that people could benefit from, imagine how many more people we could release,” adds Wright.

"We’ve learned from this that there are good ways to monitor people, whether before trial, or after sentencing,” adds Knox. “We know there are electronic bracelets that are available.”

As for whether it’s a trend that will continue after the pandemic?

“This is a real opportunity for us as a society to think differently about our brothers and sisters and sons and daughters who run afoul of the law,” says Wright.

Statistics Canada says it has never recorded such a shift in inmate population numbers, saying even a minor change would normally happen over a much longer period of time.