Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Mar. 22, 2010)

Judges remain the weak link

  By John Martin


I'm sitting here at my desk staring at some sentencing numbers that are nothing short of shocking. If there's one area where criminal justice fails miserably, it's with respect to sentencing practices that defy any semblance of common sense or reason. And these recent numbers confirm, once again, that the judiciary is the one weak link in administering criminal justice.

I'm looking the lifelong criminal histories of a sample of Fraser Valley property offenders. What I see literally turns my stomach - and it likely will yours too.

I see that offenders with between nine and 14 prior convictions usually receive an average of 29 weeks when sentenced for another B and E. But when they have in excess of 40 prior convictions, their sentence actually drops to 28 weeks. The more priors - the less time given at sentencing.

This isn't an anomaly or a one-off. There is consistent evidence that, contrary to conventional wisdom and common sense, judges are handing down lighter sentences despite an increased number of previous convictions.

It's the same story looking at assault cases. When we turn our attention to repeat property offenders who also have a history of assault we see the same madness. Someone with 9 priors is receiving an average sentence of just over four and a half months. When they rack up 15 convictions, their sentence falls to a mere two and a half months. By the time they have in excess of 30 convictions, they're getting sentences of just four months. That's less than they were seeing 20 fewer convictions ago.

In fact, for assault case sentencing, it takes an average of 50 prior convictions before judges finally get the picture and start handing out comparatively tough sentences approaching 12 months. Any fewer convictions than 50 and the offender is going to be sentenced in the three to four-month range. That's "months" - not "years."

This is the type of lunacy that erodes confidence in the criminal justice system. Lawyers, judges and the minion of academic apologists for the system insist the public is too dimwitted to understand the complexities of criminal justice and should just sit back and leave everything to the experts.

"Nothing to see here folks - move along now."

It's commonly understood that prior criminal behaviour is supposed to be among the most serious of all aggravating factors and should, in the absence of some extraordinary circumstances, be taken into account at sentencing. Time and time again judges insist they take an offender's criminal history into consideration. But when one looks at those who continue to commit the same offences over and over, this simply is not happening. A lengthy criminal record is essentially a non-issue and something that has no impact on sentencing. The evidence is clear on this. Prior criminality does not impact sentencing practices.

This is not about locking anyone up and throwing away the key. And it certainly isn't about being tough on crime (that's just not going to happen). It's about being smart on crime. The types of sentences being handed down to chronic offenders don't even allow enough time to issue a pair of coveralls and toothbrush; never mind engage in some therapy or rehabilitation strategy. The police, prosecutors and other justice players have figured this out.

But it looks like the judiciary has a ways to go.

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


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