Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer can expect to get an earful about what many rural residents see as a revolving-door justice system when he meets with Red Deer-area crime watch groups.
“I think the message I’m going to take to him is they need to think of a different way of treating these guys who are doing the armed robberies, or any robberies, because somehow, this system is not working — this catch and release thing,” said Ken Wigmore, president of the Red Deer/Lacombe Rural Community Crime Watch.
Many rural residents have voiced their frustration to him about how quickly repeat offenders who are arrested are out of custody again and back in business.
“The main complaint I get is it’s the same people doing it over and over and over again,” he said.
Rural property owners also grumble about the response from police, although most acknowledge how difficult it is to patrol and respond quickly to complaints in thousands of square kilometres of countryside.
“I think we need to do something with the justice system,” Wigmore said.
“I’m not sure that locking these guys up in jail is the answer, either. That’s a university for making criminals.
“Maybe we need to bring back the chain gangs, or something different,” he said, only half joking.
His crime watch group already has a meeting set up with Schweitzer next week.
The minister announced earlier this week he would begin touring the province starting on Thursday to hear from rural residents, crime watch groups, business owners and local officials.
Eighteen communities —including Red Deer on Friday — will be visited through Sept. 30.
“First-hand conversations with Albertans will help ensure our actions truly reflect where Albertans are today,” said Schweitzer in a statement, adding the “unique vulnerability” of rural residents is recognized.
“We want to work with them to ensure our justice system reflects the realities of rural Alberta and has the tools and resources necessary to ensure rural Albertans feel their justice system protects them, their loved ones and property.”
Wigmore said rural crime issues are well known. What residents are looking for now is a concrete plan to address them, he said.
Olds Rural Crime Watch president Jason Leach said his group hopes to speak with the minister too. The group would urge the province to continue to support rural crime watch initiatives.
RCMP have told crime watch groups their efforts have helped, he said.
Rural residents would also like to get some clarity on what rights rural property owners have to defend their families and property.
“It seems a little grey, a little fuzzy — what a lawyer might tell you versus what the police might tell you, versus what’s in the law.”
Whatever steps are taken, they will need to reflect the current crime reality, said Leach.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, criminals were usually local products. Now, criminals are often from large centres, who venture out to steal and then return home to fence their goods, he said.
Leach agrees with Wigmore that the justice system is struggling to deal with the issue.
Since many repeat offenders are stealing to feed drug habits, maybe more treatment needs to be available behind bars to help break the cycle, he suggested.