(This column was published in the North Shore News on Dec. 10, 1997)
Questioning conditional sentences
By Leo Knight
CONDITIONAL sentences were foisted on an unsuspecting and beleaguered public as one of the last acts of former federal Justice Minister Allan Rock.
Ostensibly designed as a measure to provide an alternative sentencing measure for so-called "minor" offences, it now appears some judges are doling out conditional sentences like great heaps of Christmas pudding. Never mind the offence, as long as the judge sentences less than two years, suddenly the time can be served in the community and not in jail. In reality, it is just another way of saying probation.
In a lead article in the Saturday Vancouver Sun, Kim Pemberton reported many instances of persons convicted of various types of assaults, including sexual assault, receiving conditional sentences. She cited examples such as the case of Darren Ursel, the Langley man convicted of attacking a woman and sodomizing her with a racquetball racquet. The learned judge gave Ursel a conditional sentence of two years less a day, claiming he was not a sufficient risk to the community to put in jail.
B.C. Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh promptly stood up last week at the national chin wag of attorneys general in Montreal. He said he would be lobbying the federal government for changes to the Criminal Code to ensure violent offenders were not eligible for conditional sentencing. The A.G. is right as rain about that, but as usual, he stops short and doesn't address the real problem.
Pemberton's article touched on the fact many criminals who receive conditional sentences re-offend. In fact, in the first 11 months of 1997, almost 20% were back in front of the courts prior to the expiration of the original, conditional sentence.
Judges are inappropriately applying conditional sentences to people who simply don't deserve any type of break. Take, for example, the case of Frederick Dion Lewis, one of North Vancouver's stalwart criminal types.
Here's a guy whose adult criminal record goes back 11 years. Not bad for someone who is only 26 years old. His record consists almost entirely of burglary and related offences. The longest sentence he has ever received during his life of crime was 18 months and that was in 1990. His pattern in life is clear; do a bunch of B&E's, get caught, do a little time, get probation and start all over again.
In 1996, he was convicted of B&E with intent. He was sentenced to seven months and two years probation. In a perfect demonstration of the absolute futility of probation past the first or second conviction, this was the sixth time the courts have imposed a significant term of probation on Lewis. While on the latest probation period, he was again arrested while breaking into another house on Aug. 20, this summer.
Fast forward to Nov. 7. Sentencing day for Lewis. Jail, you might suggest? Hardly. Two years less a day to be served conditionally in the community. Apparently, Judge Ellen Burdett didn't feel Lewis was a threat to the public.
Despite his record stretching over every year since he became an adult. Despite the fact that he has been on probation virtually every day since he turned 17. Despite the fact he makes his living breaking into other people's houses, he got put right back into an unsuspecting community.
To give the judge her due, she did tell Lewis to be a good boy or he would be brought back before the big, bad court again. I suspect Lewis was all aquiver over that threat.
Realistically, I do believe there is a time when the courts should look at alternative sentencing methods to prison. Frankly, jail is nothing more than a way of containing someone to protect society from the ravages of that individual. But the time to consider things like diversion and conditional sentencing is early on in the criminal career. Before they have become so entrenched in their way of life there is no option but to lock them up.
In utilizing alternative sentencing though, it is imperative that appropriate programs are put in place and followed through with the utmost of diligence. Anything less is simply allowing the offenders to turn around and laugh at a system incapable or unable to control their anti-social behavior.
As for Dosanjh, he should lobby the federal justice minister to change the law concerning the application of conditional sentences. But, he should also stop taking the politically expedient (for the NDP) route and advocating sweeping reforms bent at letting criminals go home with a spanking because there's no money to deal properly with the habitual offenders.
It's not just a matter of being harsh with violent offenders, as the A.G. would have us believe. One of the greatest problems we have is with those who simply will not change their behavior.
When the attorney general turns his mind towards that reality is when he should be taken seriously. Until then, he is just another political clown in Glen Clark's circus.