Prime Time Crime

 

(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Feb. 25, 2008)

 

Justice System continues to defy logic

 

  By John Martin

I had the good fortune this past week to be invited on a panel, alongside Chief Justice Hugh Stansfield, to discuss issues around the sentencing of property offenders.  The event was organized by the CBC and held at the Abbotsford campus of the University College of the Fraser Valley.

As is often the case in these types of events, it was the audience, not the panelists, which provided the real insight.  People told stories of having their houses and cars broken into time and time again.  They sensed the justice system really had no intention of taking their victimization seriously.  And in those cases where the perpetrator was caught, the courts sent him back to the streets in a heartbeat to continue racking up victims.

Their stories were no different than those you read about in every community newspaper and hear about everyday.  People forfeiting a good nightís sleep so they could be on watch to defend their home and property in the wee hours.  People left traumatized by repeat victimization only to watch a crowd of criminal justice professionals and experts huddle about to discuss what they can do for the poor offender.

The frustration and sense of betrayal is deafening. 

But of all the blatant failures in our current justice system, none seem to be more illogical than the manner in which we deal with prolific, chronic offenders.  The conventional wisdom is that the severity of an offenderís sentence increases in proportion to the number of times someone has been convicted.  That would make sense Ė the more crime, the more time.

But it doesnít work that way.   In fact, the evidence shows that penalties tend to become lighter as one racks up convictions.  The explanation is that sending this person to jail didnít work because theyíre still committing crimes, so letís try something different this time.

No doubt judges and others are sincere in trying to find solutions that may be more effective in the long run than incarceration.  But this defies everything we know about basic human psychology.  It sends a message that after a while we will accept an offenderís repeated criminality and wonít respond with anything that would inconvenience him.

And itís this normalization and tolerance for repeat offenders that is most troubling.  In every jurisdiction there is a small number of offenders, usually addicts, who commit hundreds and even thousands of offences.  Of course we must expand drug treatment facilities to deal with the problem.  But by taking these people out of circulation, which isnít difficult because the police and prosecutors know exactly who they are, crime would drop dramatically overnight.  Law-abiding citizens are entitled to this.

Mercifully, this is starting to happen in a few jurisdictions.  Police are working with the courts to identify the chronic, incorrigible offender and hand down some serious sentences that deny them the opportunity to continue offending.  But many judges are reluctant to embrace this concept.  They see it as an intrusion on their discretion to do what they believe is appropriate in each case. 

This is why we need more legislation that imposes mandatory minimum penalties for selected offenders and offences.  A law that demands someone with a half dozen convictions for theft spends a minimum of one year in jail would take that person off the street for twelve months.  Itís conceivable that would result in hundreds of fewer victims over the year.

On the positive side, this is already underway.  The current crime bill that is stalled in the Senate would begin ushering in mandatory minimum sentences for some drug and gun related crimes.  Judges and lawyers are furious with the prospect that in some cases minimum sentences may be carved in stone.

And thatís usually as good a reason as any to demand it happen.

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

 

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