Should life mean "life"
The Harper Government’s latest initiative on criminal justice is their plan to do away with parole for persons found guilty of first degree murder based on the position of the victim (police officers), the nature of the underlying crime (sexual assault or kidnapping) or particular circumstances (the judge’s discretion if considered sufficiently horrific).
Here are a few features to consider in determining whether or not the legislation really helps Canadians:
- First degree murder carries with it an automatic life sentence with a minimum parole ineligibility of 25 years. That doesn’t mean the offender gets out after 25 years, he or she isn’t eligible to apply for parole until that time has passed. The parole board, appointed by the federal government, retains the discretion to refuse to grant parole at that point or ever. The offender is subject to remaining in jail for life, UNLESS he is granted parole and, even then, they’re on parole, subject to it being suspended or revoked, for life;
- The Harper Government did away with what was known as the “faint-hope” clause, whereby someone found guilty of first degree murder could apply before a jury for a reduction in parole ineligibility after serving 15 years. We didn’t see many of those but they did take place. In fact, I did one involving a father who had killed his daughter at a time when he was in a state of depression that wasn’t severe enough to support a finding of not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder. With the Crown’s consent, a jury reduced his parole ineligibility to 19 years, as he was a model inmate entirely unlikely to reoffend. Today, that wouldn’t be possible and the taxpayers of Canada would’ve had to pay for his continued incarceration for the additional 6 years;
- There is no demonstrated need for this amendment. We don’t have a rash of circumstances in which offenders such as those who would be affected by the change re-offending. In fact, statistics have shown that those serving life sentences who do manage to get parole are in the category least likely to re-offend;
- If the legislation is enacted, there will be no incentive for those serving such sentences to conduct themselves with any restraint while incarcerated, thereby putting correctional officers at risk;
- There may not be many areas left for the Harper Government to appeal to their “base” with the “tough on crime” agenda they are so fond of. Having displayed a fundamental lack of confidence in the judiciary by their increased use of mandatory minimum sentences and a preference for ideology-based criminal law reform in the absence of any evidence demonstrating a need for it (in fact, the U.S. experience, identifying problems with over-incarceration, has gone exactly the other way), the next decision-making entity they now want to remove discretion from is their own parole board.
Once again, the question of whether Canadians want this kind of government will remain to be answered in the next election.