Oh My God, The Gazette writes a hard-hitting opinion piece!

Killers on parole and public safety

The Gazette

Monday, September 6, 2004 – Page A10

The spate of disasters in Canada’s parole system has at last been noticed in Ottawa. Anne McLellan, the Minister of Public Safety, has questioned whether “the commitment to public safety is always there.” She says it’s time the government reviewed prisoner release programs.

She’s right. The commitment to public safety seems inexplicably to be lacking. A pressing issue is parole for those serving life sentences. Like any other inmate, lifers eligible for parole can obtain their release if “the risk is not undue” — a vague, meaningless phrase. One can only pity the individuals making life-and-death decisions against that standard.

Most other inmates will inevitably be released some day. For them, parole is a way to join society gradually and with supports — a halfway house, parole officers, counselling programs. Granting parole to those inmates represents a calculated risk that careful reintegration ahead of schedule is safer than simply bidding inmates goodbye and good luck at the end of their sentences. But the calculation of risk and benefit is completely different with lifers. The system is under no obligation to let lifers out — ever. It is merely obliged to give them a fair hearing.

First-degree murder brings an automatic life sentence. A popular misconception is that life means 25 years. Parole eligibility usually begins after 25 years, but parole need not be granted. Life is also automatic for second-degree murder; parole eligibility can be set at anywhere from 10 to 25 years.

The corrections authorities perceive lifers as the nice guys of the prison system. Under the heading “Lifers as Successes,” the website of Correctional Service Canada says: “Lifers have committed the ultimate offence against society, but the vast majority are not calculating, experienced criminals. While serial killers and assassins exist, they are not the typical lifer. Most murder victims are usually a relative or close acquaintance. Most frequently, lifers’ crimes are triggered by circumstance, substance abuse, emotional trauma or a combination of these. They are among the most likely to succeed on parole.”

Ignore the ingenuous tone and assume the point is correct. The problem is that this rosy view of lifers colours the decision-making process. Corrections authorities move some “calculating, experienced criminals” into minimum security and give them favourable pre-sentence reports, on which parole boards base their decisions.

Thus, Eric Norman Fish, who killed a man in a home invasion, was freed on day parole recently in British Columbia. He has now been charged with killing another man in a home invasion. Robert Bruce Moyes was an armed bank robber and career criminal. He was freed on parole, also in British Columbia, and pleaded guilty two years ago to killing seven people. Conrad Brossard of Quebec had not one but two life sentences against him. He obtained day parole in 2001 and, within two months, killed a woman.

The statistics back up the impression that lifers are being treated leniently. In 2002-03, 71 per cent of all federal prisoners who applied for day parole received it; 84 per cent of lifers who applied were successful. Of those who applied for full parole, 43 per cent of all prisoners and 32 per cent of lifers were successful.

Several systemic issues need investigation:

The quality of reports from the corrections system available to the parole board. In Mr. Brossard’s case, a freelance psychologist, paid as little as $300 to assess the inmate, did not put Mr. Brossard through key tests of dangerousness, was discouraged from labelling him a psychopath and did not have access to his complete file.

The willingness of the parole board to make decisions based on incomplete information. If it was clear that the assessment of Mr. Brossard was based on incomplete data, the parole board should have asked for more information.

The lack of weight given to public safety. Two months before Mr. Brossard’s release, he was found in actuarial measurements to be a “31.1 per cent risk to reoffend over the short or medium term.” In the corrections system, that is called a “low to moderate risk.” This is evidently what the board considers “not undue.”

The release of lifers on split decisions. Mr. Fish, the home invader, was released to a halfway house after a 2-1 parole-board decision. Who could sleep comfortably nearby knowing that one in three people thinks a released killer might kill again?

The lack of hard data to support a release. Some dangerous lifers have been released largely because they participated in jailhouse therapy programs. But as clinical psychologist Sheilah Hodgins points out, no program for psychopaths is known to be effective. Roughly 2,500 federal inmates are psychopaths, she says.

The poor design of halfway houses. Howard House in Vernon, B.C., held as many as 27 parolees, plus another 20 homeless men. Three of the parolees were convicted killers, and three were sex offenders. Who thought this could work? At least three murders in the past eight years have been blamed on the home’s parolees.

More than 60 people have been killed by those on parole for murder or manslaughter since 1977, and that does not include those killed by lifers such as Mr. Moyes, whose original crime was armed bank robbery.

Something is out of whack. A life sentence is of a different order than the fixed-term sentence pronounced on most lawbreakers. Lifers are those criminals deemed so dangerous that conditions are attached to their freedom (if they are granted it) until they die. A lifer is not just another prisoner.

“Not undue” is not good enough. Ms. McLellan needs to correct a system gone awry.

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