Don’t get tough, get fair

It would take a long article — or a series of articles — to document all of the federal government’s platform on crime.

It would take a long article — or a series of articles — to document all of the federal government’s platform on crime.

We’ve already discussed their plans to build more prisons (we wish they could be hospital beds, mental health wards or brain injury centres instead). And a proposal to change laws around making a citizen’s arrest (more risk than reward).

Today, let’s examine two policies that are worth the broad support they are already getting in Parliament.

The Conservative government’s program on crime is part of the party’s five-point platform in the last election.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s get-tough attitude is also part of his effort to change the greater Canadian political map — that will serve as his legacy. (Canada’s efforts to assert Arctic sovereignty would be another.)

Regardless of political affiliations, there are two proposals we’d like to see passed.

One is a change in parole law that automatically springs non-violent offenders from jail after serving only one-sixth of their sentences.

As usual, the politicians are making policy after reading the news headlines.

In Quebec, Vincent Lacroix got 13 years on 200 fraud-related charges. Investors lost $115 million in schemes using Norbourg Asset Management Inc. Lacroix, the man in the centre of it all, recently packed his stuff, walked out of jail and into the parole system. This, after serving one-sixth of his time, minus credits for time served while his case crawled through the courts.

Obviously, this is not a good image for either the government or the Bloc Quebecois.

They want to be seen as protecting their constituents, so they have agreed to work together on some new parole regulations.

That package isn’t available to the public yet, but Canadians should still hope to see some non-violent offenders get an early release, if a genuine resolve can be seen on the part of a criminal to change his or her ways.

But this should not be an automatic reward. In the case of Lacroix, the law should punish as well as instruct.

Let’s also hope another legal loophole is closed before Lacroix can slip through: his obtaining a pardon.

How galling would it be for Lacroix’s victims to subsidize through their taxes his application for a federal pardon (as a non-violent offender), so that he can expunge his criminal record?

The government plans to increase the cost of an application to $631, from the current subsidized rate of $150.

We’ll ignore a proposal for minimum sentencing laws for now. That would require another discussion.

For today, you can be forgiven if you believe sentences these days are light enough; that the only real burden a criminal bears for his sins is his record.

If a person convicted of a crime can’t honestly come up with $631 to clear his record, why should taxpayers bear that cost?

For non-violent crimes, these pardons are virtually routine. For others, knowing the criminal will forever have to explain the circumstances of his crime on a job application, and say over and over again how he intends never to re-offend, is about the only lasting comfort his victims will ever realize from their ordeals.

As it is, the prospect of a criminal record is the ultimate deterrent to crime that we have.

Eventually, victims can learn to forgive and move on, but this closure doesn’t come easily, or automatically. We know this from direct experience.

Part of closure is the knowledge the criminal will serve a just sentence — including the burden of everyone knowing he is a criminal.

Canadians should be able to see provable assurances of new behaviours before either parole or a pardon is issued. That’s not getting tough, — that’s being fair and just.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.