When a Crown prosecutor told a packed Innisfail Legion room recently how the justice system works, Red Deer County Mayor Jim Wood was listening.
He did not leave a happy man from the emotional gathering that drew 250 people.
“I was appalled at this revolving door,” said Wood on Tuesday. “I didn’t realize that someone with no criminal record is typically given a suspended sentence for stealing a vehicle.”
Even those who are caught stealing vehicles on numerous occasions, measure their time behind bars in days and, at most, months, he learned to his dismay.
Judges who dish out more severe punishments risk seeing the sentences reduced on appeal.
Wood said the Jan. 28 gathering organized by area crime watch associations, and featuring Red Deer’s chief Crown prosecutor, Dominique Mathurin, was an eye-opener.
Justice system critics have long bemoaned what they regard as a revolving-door approach that puts arrested criminals back on the streets within hours, in some cases.
What came as a surprise to him, and many others present, was that criminals lurking around rural properties are not out of custody because they are awaiting trial and sentencing, but that they are out after already serving their short sentences.
Wood said the information about the sentences allowed by law did not go over well with many in the audience.
“They didn’t like the answer of where these sentences are,” he said. “What it sounds like is that our whole system is broken.”
The police are doing their job. The arrests are made and the repeat offenders are known to police, who are as unhappy as any with the situation, he said.
“The solution is far beyond hiring more police officers.”
Wood said the county is trying to set up a meeting with Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer to urge the province to lobby for justice system changes.
Red Deer County Coun. Jean Bota was at the same meeting in Innisfail, and shares the prevailing sentiment of rural landowners that more needs to be done to stop the epidemic of rural crime and rampant vehicle thefts.
Bota would like to see the courts hear more from crime victims, through victim impact statements. Those victimized by thieves are often deeply affected.
“This trauma goes beyond stealing,” said Bota, who is president of the Alberta Community Crime Prevention Association.
“I think those people (in the court system) need to start hearing this stuff.”
Schweitzer wants community groups to be able to submit victim impact statements at sentencing hearings to outline how communities suffer from crime, a move that Bota supports.