Prime Time Crime

 

(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Feb 9, 2009)

 

Judges have earned the public's contempt

   

  By John Martin

Public confidence in the Canadian criminal justice system has reached crisis proportions. Things are so bad that even the police no longer receive the high levels of public support they could traditionally count on. But the frustration and anger seems primarily directed at the judiciary. Judges continue to be maligned for slap-on-the-wrist sentencing practices and releasing suspects on bail even when it is clearly not in the public interest to do so.

When confronted with criticism, the judiciary has tended to ignore these concerns as though justice were their own personal domain and the rest of us have no business commenting on it. As of late though, the judiciary has taken more of a combative stance, coming to it own defence and maintaining that government makes the laws so any concerns should be directed at legislators, not judges.

Fair enough. Parliament is responsible for many of the most troubling aspects of the justice system, such as introducing conditional sentences that give even some of the most despicable offenders the right to serve their sentences at home. But it is a complete whitewash and abdication of duty for judges to pass the buck.

One case in point involves the victim surcharge fine. For over a decade a law has been in place that mandates judges impose a surcharge, usually in the range of 15%, on top of the fines handed down to offenders in court. These monies are supposed to be directed to victim services and compensation programs in the province. They pay for counseling, medical costs, property replacement, income loss and other needs victims of crime typically encounter.

The victim surcharge fine also brings a modicum of accountability to the system, forcing law-breakers to pay a form of restitution to crime victims. The concept of a victim surcharge fine was well received when introduced and appeared to symbolize some semblance of reform and common sense returning to the system.

But alas, the program may as well never have been introduced because - wait for it - judges donít like it. Even though the law says these surcharges are to be imposed, barring exceptional circumstances of financial hardship, judges are waiving them more than two-thirds of the time. Last year judges exempted almost 30,000 offenders in B.C. from paying the surcharge. This amounts to somewhere between 2 and 3 million dollars that never made it to victim services. This has been quietly going on for at least five years.

The money is one thing - but this enduring and sneering contempt for victims of crime is a disgrace. Recall that modest reforms to the justice system over the last few decades involving the plight of victims were vigorously resisted by the legal industry. Judges and lawyers kicked and screamed like six-year olds trying to avoid taking a bath as some rights for victims became recognized in law. They were furious that public pressure had forced parliamentarians to slowly incorporate some concerns of victims into the justice system. And now we learn judges have been routinely ignoring a law designed to assist crime victims and hold offenders accountable - if only minimally. Is it any wonder the system is held in such disrepute by so many?

Puny victims - when will they learn to mind their own business and quit inconveniencing career criminals?

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

 

Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2009