Mercy essential to justice

The federal government has floated a proposal to eliminate the faint-hope clause for killers.

The federal government has floated a proposal to eliminate the faint-hope clause for killers.

That particular bit of law, also know as Section 745.6 of the Criminal Code of Canada, allows Canadian prisoners who have been sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole for a period greater than 15 years, to apply for early parole after serving at least 15 years.

Juries get to decide if the prisoner should get out early.

Not surprisingly, the faint-hope clause is unpopular with the law-and-order, right-of-centre crowd. They consider it a loophole that lets murderers enjoy the good life after they’ve spent a mere 15 years or so in the slammer.

The clause was put into effect in 1976, when the death penalty was abolished in Canada.

It represents a reasonable compromise between the tough-as-nails punishment some conservatives want and the slap-on-the-wrist approach favoured by some liberals.

No doubt, the plan to kill the faint-hope clause is big with the few former Reform Party members still clinging to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apron strings.

But it won’t be acceptable to more progressive politicians — like New Democrats, Liberals, Bloc Québécois members and the few Conservatives who represent sophisticated, urban ridings.

They realize the days of the eye-for-an-eye approach are long gone (such a strategy would simply leave the entire population figuratively blind).

To paraphrase English poet John Milton in Paradise Lost, justice must be tempered with mercy.

If we simply seek vengeance in every case, then we fail as a society.

We, as individuals, are demeaned if we allow our government to hand out mean-spirited and excessive punishments in our name.

The Conservatives apparently think they can score points with voters by closing the faint-hope loophole — but in all probability, they’ve seriously misjudged Canadians.

As a people, we are not as unforgiving and bitter as the Tories think we are. For the most part, we are better than that.

Besides, the Conservatives only have a minority government and there is little chance the Liberals, NDP and Bloc will want to be party to a move that would take us back to the bad old days of the 1960s.

Our justice system is far from perfect, but it has made advances in recent decades.

These days, in many cases, judges and juries take into consideration the circumstances that have led criminals down the wrong path — factors like poverty and fetal alcohol syndrome.

They also recognize that mistakes are made in courtrooms from time to time, resulting in innocent people being convicted.

Canada’s current law provides life sentences for both first- and second-degree murder (with different possibilities for parole).

In either case, upon release, the person is considered to be on probation for the rest of his or her life.

That’s reasonable.

Virtually anyone who is convicted of murder deserves to be treated severely. However, they should not be utterly robbed of hope.

After all, one of the aims of punishment is rehabilitation — and though many people think otherwise, it is at least theoretically possible for a killer to be rehabilitated.

And, if the circumstances are right, it should be possible for society to forgive that individual.

Should that happen often? Probably not. But it should be possible.

In any case, faint-hope clause applications are rarely successful as things stand now, so there’s no need to change the law.

Lee Giles is an Advocate editor.