(This column was published in the North Shore News on June 27, 2001)


Politics drives our justice system

By Leo Knight

ONE presumes that when the chief judge of the provincial court takes a public rip at me then I must be having an effect.  


Whether that effect is positive or negative will be left to the reader to decide.  


Ordinarily I have my say and I don't respond when others have theirs in rebuttal. The idea of a good opinion piece is to stimulate debate.  


However, after reading what Chief PCJ Carol Baird-Ellan wrote in these pages last week, I'm thinking a few words must be raised in disagreement.  


The letter was written about my column of May 30 in which I was critical of recently appointed Judge Ernie Quantz's decision in the case of Mark Istephan who was convicted of several offences in relation to the attempted abduction of a 13-year-old girl.  


Istephan was given a conditional sentence and I was critical about it.  


Well, no surprise there.  


But, in Her Honour's letter to the editor, it was suggested I did not have my facts straight and she went on to say conditional sentencing was legislated by the federal government and intimated there could be no political interference at a provincial level.


While it is true the feds are responsible for enacting legislation in criminal matters, it is the provincial governments who have the responsibility for the administration of justice. Former attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh spouted off at length about the use of conditional sentencing and how he was all for it in cases involving non-violent offenders.  


The practical reality is that conditional sentencing is being misused by provincial court judges every day in our courts and not just in the Istephan case. In that case, Istephan grabbed the 13-year-old girl and tried to drag her into his vehicle. How can anyone claim that is a "non-violent" offence? If an attempted physical abduction is not violent, then what is?  


But beyond that, conditional sentencing has become a weapon against clogging in our courts. If someone is charged with robbery in a home invasion case, for example, the defence immediately lobbies for a plea bargain and the overworked Crown lowers the charge to a simple break and enter and presto, it is now a "non-violent" offence and a conditional sentence is back on the table.  


The offender gets a "get-out-of-jail-free" card and the court docket is quickly reduced by one. But, where's the justice in that? You can be sure that is not the application the Standing Committee on Justice in Parliament intended in introducing conditional sentencing.  


Is the public protected? Hardly. Is there a deterrence aspect to the sentence? Not in the slightest. Yet, these are the criteria judges are supposed to weigh in pronouncing a sentence for an offence.  


Conditional sentencing is about nothing but politics. The politics of budgeting and funding the corrections branch. The politics of diverting funds to special interest groups in return for political support. The politics of not building more correctional facilities. And the politics of ideological agenda.  


It is the politics that drive our justice system, which led a judge on Vancouver Island to say, "I have no confidence that whatever sentence I pronounce will be carried out." Or another old friend of mine, a provincial court judge who says, "I have three choices in sentencing: I can give him nothing; or I could give him nothing; or in the more serious cases, I can give him nothing."  


Judges are handcuffed in sentencing and this is all about politics, provincial politics. The point I raised in that column was the judge involved, Ernie Quantz, had been employed for the last number of years as the assistant deputy minister in the Attorney General's office and was directly responsible for implementing the programs in the criminal justice system. A significant part of which was the implementation of Dosanjh's policies regarding conditional sentencing.  


I did not question Quantz's ethics. In fact, I went out of my way to point out that in checking him out with individuals I do respect, I received nothing but positive responses. I did question the application of conditional sentencing in the case of a clearly dangerous individual who was convicted of the violent crime of trying to abduct a 13-year-old girl.  


Finally, Judge Baird-Ellan said the appointment of judges comes via the Judicial Council and was not political. True. But, the AG makes the appointment based on recommendations of the council and any time an appointment is made by a politician, politics will play a part. The Chief Judge of the Provincial Court was not necessarily wrong and I hope she was not merely trying to obfuscate the point I was making.






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