Editorial: Don’t remove hope for parole

The Harper government is considering making a life sentence without parole automatic for certain crimes. While that is consistent with the Conservatives’ get-tough-on-crime agenda, it is not consistent with a fair and effective justice system.

The government should not take away from judges and parole boards the flexibility to examine each case on its merits. The ability to make decisions based on humaneness and common sense should not be removed from the justice system.

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The Conservative government plans to introduce legislation that would make a life sentence without parole automatic for killers of police officers and jail guards, as well as anyone who kills during a kidnapping, terrorist act or sexual assault.

It could apply to other particularly brutal killings, if a judge so decides.

“Canadians do not understand why the most dangerous criminals would ever be released from prison,” Gov.-Gen. David Johnston said in the speech from the throne in October.

“For them, our government will change the law so that a life sentence means a sentence for life.”

First- and second-degree murder convictions in Canada already automatically result in life sentences, but with the possibility of parole after 25 years in the case of first-degree murder. Minimum parole eligibility for second-degree murder convictions is 10 years.

This isn’t a plea to go soft on killers. While convictions are based on guilt being proved beyond reasonable doubt, those who have murdered should prove to a parole board, beyond any doubt at all, that they can be safely released. While one of the aims of the justice system should be rehabilitation, it’s a distant second to public safety.

For some killers, a life sentence means just that. It’s inconceivable that mass murderer Willie Pickton could ever leave prison — no amount of rehabilitation could ever erase depravity of that depth.

The same goes for Ontario serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo. Notorious serial killer Clifford Olson died in prison, as he should have.

Justin Bourque, the man who killed three RCMP officers in New Brunswick, was sentenced in October to 75 years without parole eligibility, the result of the judge’s order that Bourque’s three life sentences be served consecutively.

That’s the firm hand of justice in action.

The requirements to be granted parole should be rigorous, but we should not take away the right to seek parole, to take away all hope. That is cruel and unusual punishment. It leaves no incentive for a person to change for the better.

There’s a strong element of revenge in the Harper government’s attitude that criminals aren’t getting what they deserve.

But the underlying principle of justice is fairness, not vengeance.

It is not necessary to remove the possibility of parole from life sentences to make Canada safer. The country’s murder rate has been cut in half since Canada eliminated the death penalty in 1976.

We should not close our eyes for one second to the evil committed by the likes of Pickton, Bernardo and Bourque, but for the sake of our collective humanity, we should be open to the possibility that people can change.

Mercy should not rob justice, but it’s a poor justice system that leaves no room for mercy.

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