(This column was published in the North Shore News on Feb. 10, 1999)


Deterrence missing in justice system

By Leo Knight

WITH the number of home invasion victims rising faster than the provincial deficit, the premier and the attorney general held a high-level meeting with the three most senior police officers in the province.  


Following the meeting, there was a photo-op with the media and a less than encouraging statement. They had a full and frank discussion, we were told. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions, but it is a top priority of this government, apparently. We can expect an announcement within two weeks, said the premier. 


Last week, with the two major television news outlets hitting the home invasion drum every night on the 6 o'clock news, the AG, Ujjal Dosanjh, was quoted in The Province as saying he is determined to end the rash of home invasions.


He talked about spending more money to educate the public in protecting themselves as though somehow it's their fault if two thugs high on testosterone and crack and low on brains bash their way into their homes.  


Oh yeah, he said he's going to lobby the federal government to change some of the legislation. "I think we do need some creative solutions ... some tougher penalties," said Dosanjh.  


If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. In May of 1997, almost two years ago, following the deaths of two elderly women, the same AG announced a commitment of $150,000 for a police home invasion task force. He talked about doing the same things he is talking about now.  


The premier followed up last week's statements by Dosanjh with a volley or two of his own. He was also quoted in The Province as saying, "The attorney-general and I believe this is the No. 1 law enforcement issue on the minds of Lower Mainland residents right now."  


So important, according to Clark, the government is going to spend money educating the public, give some money to the police and lobby the federal government for some legislative changes.  


Clark said, "Simply put, we need tougher enforcement, tougher sentencing."  


I think a pattern is developing. In 1996, when making another one of those "significant" announcements on how tough the NDP government is on crime, Clark said, "This province has led the country in urging Ottawa to protect the public from dangerous, repeat offenders."  


While the pols waffle, wringing their hands in worry, a judge in Williams Lake fired a broadside of his own. This one directly at Dosanjh and Clark. According to a 10-page written judgment, provincial court Judge Jakob de Villiers said the NDP government is "mollycoddling criminals and undermining judges' sentences."  


De Villiers said the AG refuses to monitor those given conditional sentences. According to the judge the ministry releases people from jail despite the specific wish of the court that the individual is put in custody and if fines are imposed, the ministry refuses to launch proceedings which could lead to jail time for people who refuse to pay their fines.  


In the decision the judge wrote, "it is improbable that they (criminals) will have to serve any sentence of imprisonment or be forced to pay any fine the courts impose."  


This phenomena was explained to me over lunch with a provincial court judge who is mired in the same frustration.  


He said, "In all but extreme cases I'm very limited in what I can do."  


"I can give the accused nothing. Or I could give him nothing. Or in the more serious cases, I can give him nothing."  


Here's what happens.  


In the less serious cases, normally dealt with by way of a fine, it used to be the fine was given as a penalty and if the fine wasn't paid in a prescribed period of time, the offender was brought back before the sentencing judge and a term of imprisonment was imposed. This was called "default time."  


Now the judges no longer deal out default time. The court registry clerks supposedly do. But the problem is that when the fine is defaulted on, as it seems to be in most cases, no further action is ever taken. In other words, the offender gets nothing for a sentence.  


If the judge decides to impose a conditional sentence or electronic monitoring, the ministry doesn't do the requisite follow-up to ensure the conditions imposed by the court are followed up. The offender gets nothing.  


In the more serious cases, the court may impose a jail sentence of less than two years (provincial time). The ministry officials then classify the offender and in most cases release them from custody on things like electronic monitoring despite the fact the judge deemed the individual should be in jail. Again, the offender gets nothing.  


Checking back through the press release files illustrates just how ineffectual this government and this attorney general has been in fixing a justice system in disarray.  


On Oct. 30, 1997, April 21, 1998, Oct. 21, 1998 and finally on Dec. 17, 1998, Dosanjh made major announcements concerning how his ministry would deal with the backlog in our courts.  


The problem is now worse than ever. In fact on the same day as the latest Clark/Dosanjh bit of drivel, the Crown prosecutors announced a withdrawal of services citing the backlog in the courts and the resulting high workloads as the primary reason.  


The home invasion problem is not particularly difficult. Leave the police alone to deal with their end of things. They will apprehend those responsible. That's a fact.  


But I don't want to hear any more platitudes from a couple of politicians trying to align themselves on the popular side of an issue.  


The existing law for breaking into a residence carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The existing law for using a weapon in the commission of an offence is "not less than four years" in jail.  


The laws currently are more than sufficient to deal with the crime. We don't need to lobby the federal government for new laws when the current ones are not being appropriately enforced. The problem comes with a system that will not provide a deterrence or suitable punishment for those who continually commit the crimes.  


Talking the talk is easy for Clark and Dosanjh. Walking the walk has proven to be much more difficult.  





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