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Punishment must fit the crime

A compelling series on drunk driving published in the Advocate over the past few weeks has given readers rare insight into the devastating aftermath of stupid decisions.

The survivors of victims opened their hearts in interviews and talked of lingering nightmares as they try to cope with the loss of loved ones killed by a drunk driver.

And families of victims often remain bitter about the sentences that courts have imposed on impaired drivers. The punishment, they say, doesn’t match the crimes.

Has the justice system let us down by being too lenient?

Some legal authorities say that the courts have begun to respond to public outcry for tougher sentences.

But a study by the University of Alberta says otherwise, concluding that the courts are still far too lenient. And a study by the federal Justice Department says that drunk drivers still aren’t getting the message.

On Friday in Red Deer court, a drunk driver with a blood/alcohol reading of .27 — more than three times the .08 legal limit — was jailed for six and a half years for killing four people. Tyler James Stevens, 30, was driving north in the southbound lanes on Hwy 2 at the time of the March 4 head-on crash.

Although his alcohol consumption was a matter of court record, he was in fact found guilty of four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing injury. The drunk driving charges were withdrawn as part of negotiations between the Crown and defence lawyers. Stevens pleaded guilty to the criminal negligence charges.

Did his sentence reflect society’s abhorrence with his crime?

Red Deer Crown prosecutor Anders Quist said the accused didn’t intend to kill anybody (surely no drunk driver ever does). “Mr. Stevens is not a murderer, but he did kill four human beings and horribly injured a fifth,” he said.

Quist and Stevens’ lawyer Ian Savage agreed on the sentence, saying six and a half years would satisfy the public and deter others from making similar decisions. Savage called his client’s actions “a terrible mistake.”

Was Stevens’ state of mind any different than a person who, in a drunken rage, uses bad judgment at a party and stabs another person he doesn’t mean to kill, yet is still charged with manslaughter?

The lack of intention to kill in a drunk driving case should be considered no different than a drunken stabbing. The argument for manslaughter seems compelling.

In the Criminal Code of Canada, sentences for impaired driving causing death appear to be tough, calling for a maximum sentence of life in prison for some infractions.

In practise, however, a study by the University of Alberta law department says “the sentencing for these terrible offences is lenient.”

The report says lower courts are hog-tied by “precedent law,” ultimately established by the Supreme Court of Canada, which has the final say in sentencing guidelines.

In 1989, a Manitoba judge sentenced an impaired driver, who killed three passengers, to life. Despite the offender having 40 speeding, impaired and dangerous driving convictions on his record, the top court agreed to a reduced sentence of six years.

While deterrence is the chief concern in sentencing, drunk drivers continue to snub the law, says a study by the federal Justice Department. It examined 3,300 offenders, of which 57 per cent offended again at least once within five years. And the severity of the sentence had no impact, the study said.

“There was no evidence to suggest that the imposition of a fine or imprisonment had any effect on the likelihood of whether an offender would re-offend or not,” the study concluded.

If harsher sentences do not serve as a deterrent, as the Justice Department suggests, then it’s the lawmakers’ duties to consider protection of the public as paramount and impose tougher sentences. The longer that these killer drivers are kept off the roads, the safer the public will be.

The longest term a driver was given in Alberta’s history for drunk driving causing death was 20 years and six months.

On the day Raymond Yellowknee got out of jail, Jan. 20, 2006, he stole a truck and led RCMP on a high-speed chase in the Slave Lake area before crashing head on into a vehicle driven by a mother. She and her three young daughters all died.

Yellowknee was classified as a long-term offender and was sentenced in June 2008. He killed himself a year later.

But his sentence remains an exception.

There seems little doubt that harsher sentences aren’t a deterrent, and that the penalties imposed should at least keep offenders out of circulation as long as possible.

The punishment must meet the crime; the survivors of drunk drivers’ victims have made that clear.

But that means the courts must take a tougher stand, starting with the Supreme Court of Canada.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.



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