(This column was published in the North Shore News on Oct. 6, 1999)


Donít just blame judges for court failure

By Leo Knight

SATURDAY'S Vancouver Sun screamed out that hundreds of dope dealers, thieves and assorted other members of the criminal element are walking around on our streets because "judges refuse to jail them before trial."  


On the surface, the statement cannot be argued with any degree of success. However, there is much more to it than simply blaming the judges.  


First off, there's no doubt that B.C.'s justice system is equipped with a revolving door for criminals. That's reality and no amount of liberal demagoguery will change that. Career criminals with rap sheets as long as they are tall keep being brought before what passes for justice in our part of the world and they continually are set free to continue their own brand of lawlessness.  


The provincial court judges who deal with the same faces over and over have few arrows in their quiver. Now, this doesn't mean that all judges do the best they can. Not at all. In fact, some are downright incompetent and continually risk the well-being of the taxpayers with their illogical conclusions.  


But it's also clear they have little option when trying to determine an appropriate sentence or when deciding the issue of bail for habitual offenders.  


Last week, Vancouver mayor Philip Owen expressed the sentiments many people feel when he said Vancouver is a haven for criminals.  


He's right, it is.  


But he missed the mark somewhat when he said it's time for the judges to start listening to the citizens.  


"We are paying their salaries. They should be listening to the community," Owen said. "The judges don't like us to go in this direction, but I'm saying the citizens have had it."  


While he may have scored a direct hit on his target, he failed to identify where the real problem lies. And that, dear reader, is squarely at the feet of wannabe premier and Attorney General, Ujjal Dosanjh. He also might have fired a shot or two at the federal government and its succession of weak-kneed justice ministers.  


Allow me to explain. Criminal justice is regulated by Parliament in the various statutes it enacts, primarily the Criminal Code of Canada.  


All sections of the criminal code have set out maximums in terms of punishments. For example, breaking and entering of a "dwelling house" carries a maximum of life imprisonment. Unfortunately, most sections of the code do not have stipulated minimums. This leads to the biggest dodge used by the judges when they perpetrate travesties of justice.  


How many times have we heard a chief judge of the provincial court or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court recite the mantra, "It falls within the range of sentencing options provided by Parliament," when defending a judge under attack by a fed-up populace?  


Considering the "range of options" begins at nothing and ends at the maximum set out by Parliament, this is a specious argument and should be treated with derision every time it is used.  


It is at this point that Parliament, the federal government and the justice minister must shoulder their share of the blame. Without minimum sentencing requirements clearly outlined in the legislation, the judiciary has this built-in excuse to shirk its responsibility to the community.  


Which leads us to the provincial government and the pretender, Ujjal Dosanjh.  


Once enacted, the administration of criminal justice becomes a provincial responsibility. It's the purview of the attorney general to appoint provincial court judges, to oversee the courts and the provincial correction system, which includes remand centres that house individuals awaiting trial as well as offenders sentenced to less than two years in custody.  


And there's the rub. Essentially, when it comes to the remand centres, there's no room at the inn, so to speak.  


With courtrooms bursting at the seams, unable to handle the volume despite Stats Can's efforts to convince us that crime is going down, judges have been instructed to find alternative methods of sentencing that don't include jail.  


Oh, Dosanjh does dress it up in nice little terms when he talks about the problem. He uses terms like "non-violent offender" when he refers to the scumbag who just broke into your house for the 11th time.  


He likes to tell you that he's tough on crime while at the same time he closes down courthouses ostensibly to save money in a system already choking on budget cuts.  


It's fine to argue that the judiciary is independent and therefore must takeits own hits. But realistically, what does a judge do when he knows that any sentence imposed on a convicted offender likely won't be carried out?  


Corrections B.C. has no space, so it classifies the inmate for the electronic monitoring program. But, wait a minute. There aren't enough ankle bracelets for all the people on the program now. No problem, say the bureaucrats, we'll use the "no equipment option."  


The result of the judge's sentence: another criminal is free on the street happily travelling through the revolving door of B.C. justice.  


Dosanjh knows all this but continues to perpetrate this sham on the good citizens of B.C. It's also not about money, as another one of his arguments would have us believe. It's about government's priorities in the way it spends our money.  


Unfortunately, for this lot in Victoria, their priorities are things like advertising propaganda blitzes to convince us they really do know what they're doing. Or footing the legal bills of yet another premier in hot water. Or paying off the labour unions without whom they wouldn't be there in the first place.  


Judges are the easy targets in this debate and yes, they must start shouldering the responsibility society confers upon them.  


But, at the end of the day, it is our elected representatives who have failed us. Let's not forget them as we cluck our tongues about the habitual offender who just got set free -- again.






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