Prime Time Crime  


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Jan. 28, 2008)


Reclaim our justice system


  By John Martin

In a year-end interview B.C.'s Attorney General, Wally Oppal, conceded that confidence in the criminal justice system is at an ďall time low.Ē  This hardly comes as news, though the A.G. is to be congratulated for publicly acknowledging what many have been saying for some time.

But itís much more than a mere confidence issue.  The justice system is failing miserably in its primary objectives.  It has lost the capacity to deter would-be offenders by refusing to hand down meaningful sentences that set examples.  Judges continue to impose sentences that have zero impact on offendersí future behavior.  Despite all its bravado about rehabilitation, the same offenders are constantly in and out of the system.  It has also turned its back on public safety by releasing high-risk offenders before the expiration of their sentences.  Further, the system rarely brings any sense of justice to victims or their families.  And as Oppal noted, judges who are oblivious to what the public thinks do not help the situation.

One barely knows where to begin in an attempt to reform and revive a process that has clearly become impotent.  But most important, the public needs to reclaim the justice system.  The legal community, including judges, has essentially laid claim to justice as their personal, private domain.

A disturbing illustration of this occurred this past year when the federal government suggested reforming the judicial appointment process by involving some non-lawyers in the screening process.  Judges and lawyers went ballistic and demanded the government mind its own business.

During the Gomery Inquiry it was revealed that a significant majority of recent appointments to the bench were given to lawyers who contributed generously to the Liberal Party of Canada.  Clearly, any effort to reform the process of appointments was required if for no other reason than to address the stench that comes from the appearance that judgeships are for sale in this country.

But rather than welcome the proposed reforms as being vital to protect the integrity of the courts, lawyers and judges screamed bloody murder.  They actually believe the criminal justice system is theirs and theirs alone.  They need to be told otherwise.

There are a number of overdue reforms that lawyers and judges may not like, but should be implemented regardless.

First, get rid of two-for-one credit for time spent in pre-trial custody.  This is routinely abused and encourages unnecessarily delaying cases.

Second, eliminate concurrent sentences.  It is absurd that someone convicted of five counts of theft gets the same amount of time as someone with a single conviction.  We should crack down on multiple offenders rather than awarding them bulk discounts.

And third, eliminate the conditional sentence.   It is nothing more than another type of probation that was never intended for violent offenders and sexual predators.  If the courts canít use it responsibly and selectively, take it away from them.

Last month, Tuan Minh Nguyen, one of the attackers who brutally assaulted Michael Levy and rendered him a quadriplegic, was handed a conditional sentence.  Moments later, hysterical laughter was heard in the elevator he shared with his friends.  For many, that event confirmed what they already believed Ė the system has become a joke.

Itís high time it was returned to its rightful owners. 

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2008