(This column was published in the North Shore News on Dec. 10, 2003)
E-mails about our stinky criminal system
By Leo Knight
A reader e-mailed me last week complaining about a column I had written last spring in which I criticized North Vancouver provincial court Judge Jerome Paradis.
The reader is a lawyer, a member of the defence bar.
We e-mailed back and forth a few times espousing our positions and frankly the discussion was quite interesting. What began as a criticism of me turned into a discussion on sentencing provisions, judge shopping, judicial independence and victims' rights.
One of the things I tend to preach from this bully pulpit is that there has to be a point when the system decides that someone is beyond salvage, when they have tried every possible thing, but the criminal has demonstrated time and again that there's nothing which will alter the bad behaviour.
What currently exists is an embarrassing display of a lack of consequences for most offenders who simply re-offend because nothing terribly bad will happen to them.
The reader raised the oft-argued point that it costs too much to incarcerate people. True, it is expensive. But the costs of keeping them out, in my view, are much higher. For example, ICBC will spend more than $100 million this year alone in costs associated with car thefts. One crime only. That money could house over 2,000 habitual offenders in jail.
If we add in all the other costs to society and then understand that more than 80 per cent of all crime is committed by the same people over and over again, people who keep getting released by a moribund justice system, we begin to understand that incarceration of the habitual offenders is actually cost effective.
I said to the reader in one of my replies that I was sure I don't have to tell him that most cars are stolen by a relatively few number of people who do it over and over and over again. The only consequence they get is if they happen to screw up and kill themselves in a crash. Conviction, probation, breach, arrest, more probation, multiple offences, multiple breaches, more probation, then probation on top of probation. In extreme cases a CSO (Conditional Sentencing Order) which too, will be breached.
That's the reality.
His response was surprisingly agreeable. He stated that the crux of our discussion was easy to identify - at what point do you say enough is enough and throw the book at someone? The first time, the second, third, fourth time? He said, "Look, our current approach of waiting until the 300th time, if then, stinks."
Couldn't have said it better myself.
Every now and again I tell you the story of another thug who falls in the category of habitual offender where the courts fail in their duty. Let's look at a recent case in North Vancouver to illustrate just how much the system stinks.
In 2002, Michael Steven Edwards, who was 31 years old at the time, got arrested for armed robbery and not his first, I might add. He got a conditional sentence.
In November, RCMP members were trying to solve a spate of break-ins. They believed they had a single suspect responsible who was doing at least one a night.
On Nov. 20, it seems the suspect changed his pattern from nights to days. In the late afternoon, he was observed climbing into the window of a residence on West 15th Street. Shortly thereafter, he broke into another nearby home.
A woman was home at the time and surprised the burglar.
He scared the crap out of her and fled. That woman and the earlier witness both picked Edwards from a photo lineup.
I should note here that there were two other break-ins that afternoon in the same neighbourhood, but no evidence was developed to implicate Edwards in those.
Last week, Edwards pleaded guilty to the two break-ins. He got sentenced to jail to finish off the term of his original conditional sentence on the robbery that he breached, a period of nine months.
The judge had little choice in that. But, on the break-ins, she sentenced Edwards to another CSO. Unbelievable.
Does the learned judge think that somehow he is going to have an epiphany and learn to live by the conditions of this CSO. Edwards has a long criminal history. In the police report, he was described as "a prolific career property criminal with a 17-year history of victimizing North Vancouver residents."
I'm told the Crown prosecutor will be seeking to appeal this and rightly so.
I was speaking about all this to West Vancouver lawyer David Marley last week. He said, somewhat understatedly, "As you know, and people should constantly be reminded, the preamble to our country's Constitution states that the function of government is to provide peace, order and good government. As we've shamelessly delegated the provision of peace to our American neighbours in recent decades, that leaves two domestic priorities. Neither of which is being attended to these days."
In the back and forth with my original reader, he too, came around to admitting the state of our system is significantly flawed. He mused at the end of the discourse, "Frankly, I'm starting to subscribe to the view that a conservative is simply a liberal who has been mugged by reality."
I think I'm starting to like this guy.
Clarification Dec. 17, 2003
In Leo Knight's column of Dec. 10, the unnamed lawyer in his e-mail exchange is a Vancouver defence lawyer with less than one year's experience and who does not wish to be named. In the same column, David Owen Marley was identified as a West Vancouver lawyer. In fact, Marley is a former member of the Law Society of B.C. He became a non-practising member of the society in 2000 and terminated his membership in 2003.