Is this really necessary?

March 11, 2015   ·   0 Comments

THE LATEST PRE-ELECTION MOVE by the federal Conservatives involves probably the most unnecessary legislation ever introduced in Canada’s Parliament.

Almost certain to solidify the Harper government’s re-election chances, the legislation will lead to hundreds (thousands?) of killers being sent to federal penitentiaries with no realistic hope of ever leaving, save for feet-first.

Ask the average resident of this area whether they like the idea of instituting U.S.-style “life without parole” for murderers, and they will likely shrug, seeing our criminal justice system as having been too soft on crime and not sufficiently concerned about its victims.

There certainly was no uproar at the recent change in law that allowed judges to impose consecutive life sentences, with one multiple killer being told he will have to wait 75 years before being eligible to seek parole, by which time he’d be a centenarian.

However, unlike previous moves by the current government to toughen sentencing, this latest one is surely worse than useless, whether or not it faces constitutional challenges as a form of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The reason, as any criminologist will tell you, is that eliminating any hope of eventual parole will inevitably worsen conditions in our prisons and endanger the lives of prison guards. Why? Because as matters stand, the possibility of eventual release from custody is the best possible reason for good behaviour while behind bars.

With no hope of parole, prisoners would see no additional penalty for misbehaving, even to the point of killing or wounding a guard; without capital punishment, all they’d face was a trial without any form of additional punishment available.

Under the current law, the first chance at full parole for first-degree murder is at 25 years. In describing the new legislation last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government will remove the possibility of parole for those who commit “especially brutal murders,” those who kill during a sexual assault, kidnapping or act of terrorism, and those who kill prison guards or police officers.

As politically attractive as such a law might be, it comes in the absence of any statistics showing a need.

For one thing, the case of Clifford Olson stands out as a classic example of a serial killer who tried repeatedly to be paroled and wasn’t, even when he was terminally ill with cancer. Is there really any doubt that other killers like Paul Bernardo or David Alexander Snow (Orangeville’s ‘House Hermit’) will ever be released, having not only been convicted of first-degree murder but given “indeterminate” sentences as dangerous offenders?

We would also like to see some up-to-date statistics that would demonstrate any need for such legislation.

For instance, how many cases have there been in the last 10 years where someone paroled after being convicted of first-degree murder killed again? We have no doubt that a single instance of such a killer even being charged would receive enormous publicity.

Although the legislation will apparently include a new “faint hope” clause that’s somewhat similar to one killed by the Harper government in 2011, a major difference is that the decision on granting release after 35 years would be a political one removed from the judicial system.

The previous clause left to juries the decision on whether to recommend the release of someone after 15 years’ incarceration, with the final ruling left to parole authorities. (Interestingly, juries almost never recommended early parole everywhere but in Quebec, where they generally favoured it.)

Under the proposed legislation, application for parole after 35 years would be to the federal cabinet of the day, and thus subject to the vagaries of that day’s political climate.

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