Editorial: Looters and profiteers must be punished

Between March 15 and May 2, business break-ins in Victoria and Esquimalt increased from 12 during the same period in 2019, to a whopping 80 this year, close to a seven-fold increase. The cause is believed to be that many small businesses are closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. That makes them more vulnerable.

It’s also likely that empty streets add to the temptation.

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Likewise, RCMP statistics in Kamloops show a 120% rise in crime rates. That our cities’ criminal classes would take advantage of a national emergency in this manner is beneath contempt. We’ll return to this in a moment.

But there is an additional issue. The mayor of Kamloops placed part of the blame on “the inaction of the provincial court in particular.” And city officials noted that offenders are receiving conditional releases instead of prison sentences because of back-ups in the courts.

The chief judge of the B.C. Provincial Court has already complained to Attorney General David Eby that the court system lacks sufficient resources, particularly telecommunications, to conduct electronic hearings.

There may be truth in this, though the medical system is managing with e-health just fine. But the undeniable fact is that our courts have suffered endless delays for years, long before the COVID-19 crisis came along.

Dr. Brian Day, a Vancouver private surgeon, launched a constitutional case against the province in 2009. That case only wrapped up last year, a full decade after it was first filed. And we’re still waiting for a ruling.

It took two years to try Tenessa Nikirk for striking and critically injuring 11 year-old Leila Bui with her vehicle in Gordon Head. A guilty verdict was pronounced in January 2020 with sentencing promised in February. But now the penalty phase has been postponed until September. Why the eight-month delay? Justice may be blind, but too often it also appears deaf.

A number of retired judges have pointed to endemic mismanagement as the cause. In part, the explanation lies with lawyers who deliberately drag things out as a tactic to get clients off. But the problem also rests with judges who sometimes appear unprepared to deal with the complexities of managing our highly complex legal system.

But let’s return to those break-ins. During the Second World War in Britain, looting and profiteering soared. There were cases of crooks cutting the wedding rings off dead bodies while the Blitz was under way.

In response, the U.K. government made looting a death penalty offence, which would have been far too harsh. That penalty was thankfully never applied, but it sent a message that property crimes would be taken seriously.

Currently, the sentence for break and enter in B.C. varies greatly, depending on the value of the goods stolen, and the previous criminal history, if any, of the offender.

But leaving aside crooks with lengthy records, meaning a dozen or more convictions, or cases where violence ensued, the average sentence for breaking into a business varies from a few months to a year or so. And the latter are fairly rare.

For example, a burglar with a prior record who broke into three stores in 2011 got five months, and that’s before time off for good behaviour.

If Eby is serious about cracking down on this kind of despicable crime, the solution, so far as there is one, is to raise significantly the penalties applied.

As things stand, our deserted streets and shuttered businesses are a magnet for the kind of low-life who would plunder already struggling firms.

If the government wants to maintain the sense of national purpose that presently exists around fighting this disease, it is essential that an example be made of profiteers and looters.

Nothing will undermine unity more rapidly than the sense that while the vast majority of us are willing to sacrifice, our legal system is too soft on scofflaws.

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