The case of self-admitted “arrogant pissant” Justin Bourque signals a new era for Canada’s criminal justice system, which now has the power to lock up killers and throw away the keys.
The people have spoken, says the Harper government of harsh changes made to Canada’s Criminal Code.
In a precedent-setting hearing last week, Bourque, 24, was sentenced to life in prison without parole eligibility for 75 years after killing three Mounties and wounding two others during a June 4 shooting rampage in Moncton, N.B. It’s the harshest sentence imposed in Canada since the last executions in 1962. Bourque won’t be eligible for parole until his 99th birthday — if he lives that long.
“This has been difficult for everyone,” said New Brunswick’s Court of Queen’s Bench Justice David Smith, describing the shootings as “one of the most horrific crime sprees to happen in Canada.”
Canadians have been critical of what they view as slack prison terms that don’t match the crimes for years.
Frustrated judges and Crown prosecutors, bound by sentencing guidelines, now have leverage to determine when enough is enough.
A 2011 amendment to the Criminal Code gives judges the power to exceed the once-mandatory 25-year-parole-eligibility-rule for those convicted of first-degree murder. The Harper government introduced the changes to eliminate what it called the “volume discount” for multiple killers.
Bourque pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. Prior to the 2011, changes he would have been facing a life sentence without parole eligibility for 25 years.
The new legislation, called the Protecting Canadians by Ending Sentence Discounts for Multiple Murders Act, gives judges power to impose consecutive sentences under certain circumstances. That means in cases such as multiple murders, the offender can be sentenced to serve all sentences back-to-back, as opposed to the concurrent model that bundles sentences together — amounting to one sentence for numerous crimes.
Rehabilitation, as in Bourque’s case, takes a backseat in the courtroom — punishment that fits the crimes is now the precedent if the harsher sentences apply,
Bourque’s lawyer David Lutz, who argued to have parole eligibility set at 50 years, will not appeal the sentence. “Given all the law, given all the facts, (Bourque’s sentence) was the sentence that the judge had no choice but to make,” said Lutz.
While some legal think-tanks say the legislation is cruel and unusual punishment, Justice Minister Peter MacKay disagrees. “(The changes are) more in line with the Canadian public’s abhorrence of violence,” MacKay told Canadian Press.
“The family and friends of the victims of these crimes want to know that the Canadian justice system has the tools it requires to hand down the most severe punishments available to the murderer who took their loved ones from them.”
Prior to the sentencing, some members of legal community were confident Bourque would not face the maximum sentence. “I would be surprised if the court imposed 75 years on someone his (Bourque’s) age,” said University of British Columbia law professor Isabel Grant. “To make the jump to 75 years would be quite dramatic.” She also said that the judge may consider mental illness as a mitigating factor.
Bourque was found competent to stand trial after a psychiatric assessment, despite his “ranting and raging against all authority.” The killer was booted from the family home after he began buying guns and showed signs of depression and paranoia.
Allan Manson, law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., told CP that the judge must be careful not to impose a sentence that could be subject to a constitutional challenge of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Manson said, “There is ample evidence of serious psychological effects that stem from long-term incarceration.”
Archie Kaiser, law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told CP that the Criminal Code states that when consecutive sentences are imposed, they should not be “unduly long or harsh.”
“Saying that somebody has to be in prison for that long also diminishes one’s confidence in the ability of the prison to rehabilitate inmates. … It does begin to look more like vengeance and less like a fit and appropriate sentence,” said Kaiser.
Ironically, Bourque’s lawyer says he doesn’t believe the harsh sentence could be appealed on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Toronto criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby has also taken the sentence to task, telling CP it’s another example of the Americanization of our justice system. This kind of sentencing, said Ruby, is “supposed to be used with restraint because of the difficulty in telling somebody at day one that 75 years will go by and you won’t change, when in fact the reality of life is that people do change. … It’s generally better to sentence and leave the question of rehabilitation open to parole boards.”
In fact, this legislation has been used only once before.
In September 2013, an Edmonton judge sentenced armoured-car guard Travis Baumgartner to life with no chance of parole for 40 years. Baumgartner gunned down four of his colleagues during a June 2012 robbery at the University of Alberta and pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and one charge of attempted murder.
I may be that Bourque, and Baumgartner, will change over due course.
But it should also be clear to all Canadians should fit the crime. And killings of these types are as abhorrent and as dangerous to the fabric of our society as any killings can be.
Shortly after his arrest, Bourque showed no remorse, telling RCMP he was gunning for cops.
He later called himself “an arrogant pissant.”
The killer had little to say after sentencing, apparently expecting the harsh sentence, said his lawyer. “He was resigned to it, he’s been resigned to it since the guilty plea.”
Even he apparently understands that the punishment must fit the crime.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.