So once again the wrong arm of the law strikes at the heart of the criminal justice system in Canada.
Today, it was revealed in Ottawa that the federal government has supported a private member`s bill introduced by a Conservative back bencher that would severely impair the ability of a penitentiary inmate to obtain a fair and impartial parole hearing.
The bill, namely C-479 proposes, among other things, an increase from two to five years as the maximum time between parole hearings for violent offenders. In addition, this proposed legislation would attempt to make it easier for victims and their family members to present their statements during hearings during the parole hearings and as well shift the onus onto the parole board and undoubtedly the prisoner himself to provide clear ( and presumably compelling ) reasons as to why individual victims should not be allowed to attend these hearings.
While on the surface these proposals seem to be fair to the people most adversely affected by the crimes involved, namely the victims and their families, there are obvious difficulties and potentially irreversible consequences that could flow from such legislation, not only to the prisoner himself but to society as a whole.
It must be kept in mind that the identifiable victim of any crime is usually given the fullest opportunity to file his or her impact statement or to in fact testify at the criminal sentencing of any person who has been found guilty of a crime in Canada and that the very reason the prohibited behaviour has been made a crime by the parliament of this country, is the fact it interferes with the rights, liberty, freedom or physical integrity of any citizen. That is why there are maximum and in some cases, minimum sentences set out in the Criminal Code of Canada.
Historically, we have allowed our criminal court judges to hear from all parties as to the impact of the crime on the persons affected and to take that into account along with many other factors to determine the appropriate sentence for an accused person. Obviously, the more serious the offense and the more serious the impact on the victim, the longer any jail sentence imposed will be and both the prosecuting attorney and the criminal defense lawyer will have equal opportunity to present their evidence and argument in open court.
But to routinely deny release to prisoners because of the potentially on-going consequences to their victims and family members who may be adversely affected is really to punish them time and time gain for the crime for which they have been tried, convicted and sentenced.
Of course, there are always legitimate issues of victims personal safety, such as where it is clear that a prisoner if released may return to live in the same area where the victim is currently residing and in cases such as, for example, where the crime is one of domestic assault, sexual assault or robbery, the Parole Board should have that information available to consider whether to grant release and if so, to impose suitable terms as where the parolee may reside as well as other conditions that are similarly related to public safety.
The additional problem that will be encountered by continuing to place further and further emphasis on the rights of victims is that the parole boards will be under enormous pressure to deny potentially rehabilitated offenders the chance to return to society and all anecdotal and scientifically available evidence suggests that the longer a prisoner is kept institutionalized, the more unlikely it will be for her to be reintegrated into a community and to obtain meaningful and gainful employment.
Bill C-479, if implemented, will have the obvious effect of increasing the probability of longer periods of time in federal jail and in particular, the effect on inmates serving less than five years would likely be that they could not have a release hearing at all during their period of incarceration. It is very clear that with little to hope for, inmates in this predicament would not have nearly as much incentive to exhibit exemplary behaviour while in prison or to take courses or training in areas of addiction, basic skills, education or employment. Among other unfortunate consequences, the net result will lead to our prison system becoming yet an even more violent environment for both the inmates and the jail personnel who are employed there.
Do any of these proposed changes that emphasize punishment at the expense of reformation make any of us feel safer as citizens in our own communities? I think the answer is very clear, namely, a resounding NO.
Once again, we have the Conservative government acting in a fashion that capitalizes on the public`s media-generated fear but is not founded on evidenced-based reality and ignores the input of the experts in this segment of society, namely representatives of the entire criminal justice system and presumably, many enlightened law enforcement and prison authorities as well.