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Lawrie McFarlane: No study needed — just match sentence to repeat offender's record

B.C. attorney general is ducking responsibility
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David Eby, B.C. attorney general and minister responsible for housing, says his government will undertake an investigation into the causes of criminal recidivism, which Lawrie McFarlane says is a bit like the CEO of a flight school asking what an ­airplane is. Darryl Dyck,THE CANADIAN PRESS

When B.C.’s Urban Mayors’ Caucus asked provincial Attorney General David Eby for help in dealing with the problem of repeat offenders, Eby himself became a repeat offender.

It began with Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, co-chair of the caucus, drawing Eby’s attention to a list of 10 chronic offenders in her city, who alone have had 1,385 run-ins with local police over the past two years.

In one instance, a repeat offender in the capital region generated 284 police incidents within a 24-month period, was charged 55 times, and registered 22 ­separate convictions.

The mayors put this steadily ­worsening situation down to a form of “catch and release” practised by our ­justice system.

Eby’s first offence was to duck ­responsibility. He noted that some of these repeat offenders have drug-­addiction problems or mental-health issues. He urged that what’s needed is more attention to treatment options rather than incarceration. Let the ­health-care system sort things out.

Yet while there is some truth in that, it by no means explains the sheer dimensions of the problem.

An example: In February, a ­Similkameen man was sentenced to two years in jail for wild behaviour behind the wheel of a car.

Blake Dunstall was pulled over at an impaired-driving check in Penticton. He failed to produce a licence, and took off at high speed.

Dunstall, aged 38 at the time of his trial, had 97 prior adult convictions. These included seven assault convictions including six against domestic partners, six for driving while prohibited, five for dangerous driving, three for flight from police and two for impaired driving.

Why was this man still at large on the occasion of this latest spree? A study by researchers at the University of Fraser Valley offers an explanation.

They found that “the data … clearly indicate that judges have not been ­taking prior record into consideration when ­sentencing repeat offenders.”

That may explain why career ­criminals, although only a small ­percentage of all criminals, enjoy almost unlimited freedom to re-offend.

Eby then fell back on a second excuse. He argued that since our courts are ­independent, he, like other attorneys ­general, has no say in how they act.

Nonsense.

First, Eby’s own legislation, the B.C. Attorney General Act, has this to say: “The Attorney General must ­superintend all matters connected with the ­administration of justice in ­British Columbia that are not within the ­jurisdiction of the government of Canada.”

Which part of “must ­superintend all matters connected with the ­administration of justice” does Eby not understand?

Then again, judges, both federal and provincial, are obliged to bring their ­sentencing provisions into concert with the Criminal Code.

Unfortunately, the Criminal Code, as it stands, says little about the attention judges should pay to a record of prior convictions.

It merely says that a more severe sentence may be imposed based on prior record if the judge sees fit. But this is not a requirement.

By comparison, New Zealand’s ­criminal code states that judges must take into account a record of prior ­convictions when arriving at a sentence.

A solution therefore exists. Amend the code to instruct judges to match ­sentencing severity with the defendant’s previous record.

Finally, when there was nowhere left to hide, Eby came up with a third dodge. He announced that, in partnership with the mayors, his government would ­undertake an “investigation” into the causes of criminal recidivism.

The investigation will last four months, conveniently timed to see the ­government through the current sitting of the legislature.

This is in every respect an abdication of responsibility. It’s a bit like the CEO of a flight school asking what an airplane is.

If the minister and his government don’t by now understand exactly what causes repeat offending, they are the ­primary offenders.

jalmcfarlane@shaw.ca

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