Harper crime bill to throw away the key for ‘repulsive’ murderers could prove unnecessary and harmful: critics
The Harper government’s latest tough-on-crime proposal — to allow for life sentences without the option of parole — could be more symbolic and even dangerous, some experts suggest.
Canada’s toughest penalty is currently life in prison with no option of parole for 25 years. The Conservatives want to all but eliminate any chance of release for those convicted of the most “repulsive” and “heinous” crimes.
A life sentence in Canada will henceforth mean just that: a sentence for life
“A life sentence in Canada will henceforth mean just that: a sentence for life,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said from Scarborough. “There are certain crimes so repulsive that only a life-long sentence adequately reflects their truly horrific nature.”
Those crimes include “sexual assault; kidnapping or forcible confinement; terrorism; the killing of police officers or corrections officers; or, any first degree murders that are found to be of a particularly brutal nature,” according to a government backgrounder on the subject.
The bill would also give judges the discretion to impose those life sentences in other first-degree murder convictions.
The bill would make significant changes to sentencing: “When a criminal kills more than one person, under our law, judges can now impose consecutive sentences and take every lost life into account,” Harper said.
Without the text of the bill, which won’t be revealed until next week, it’s hard to parse the exact implications of the planned legislation.
Some have also suggested there are few if any examples where the legal change would have prevented someone dangerous from being released.
“The number of people that have been released for these kinds of offenses is a very small list… and it only happens when the circumstances are truly warranted,” said Boris Bytensky, a criminal lawyer with Bytensky Prutschi Shikhman.
“Most dangerous killers are already denied parole and held for life,” NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin said in a statement.
“I think it sends a message the government doesn’t trust the parole board to do the right thing,” Bytenksy said, adding he doesn’t really see the point. “Recidivism rates on paroled murderers are extremely low.”
He also said it could make jails even more dangerous and costly to run, as removing any hope of release removes the incentive to behave well, which creates a more violent experience for offenders who will be released.
All that adds up to more costs on the cash-strapped corrections system, he added.
It’s a very dangerous idea to put parole decisions in the hands of somebody who is elected
Canada already allows convicts to appeal to the prime minister for a pardon, and Bytensky doesn’t see the point of duplicating that process.
“It’s a very dangerous idea to put parole decisions in the hands of somebody who is elected,” Bytensky said, because they are moved by public opinion, not the law.
Harper has already promised to disallow early releases for repeat violent offenders. The Wednesday announcement is just the latest in a slew of tough-on-crime bills from the Conservative government. Past legislation has created a victims’ bill of rights, made it easier to deport convicted criminals and imposed mandatory minimums for certain crimes.
Judges and legal experts have criticized some of those moves, while victims’ rights advocates and other bodies have lauded them. Police and correctional services have called for more funding to meet increased costs associated with past crime bills.
Tough-on-crime legislation was a plank of the government’s 2013 Speech from the Throne and following through on that pledge already plays heavily into party rhetoric used to fundraise and prepare for the upcoming federal election, expected this fall.
— with files from the Canadian Press