Thursday, February 20, 2003

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Tina Thorpe's pain is raw and visible. So is her determination.
Ms. Thorpe is working to ensure that street racers face punishment that reflects the seriousness of the crime.
She's angry at the conditional sentences imposed on two men found guilty of criminal negligence causing her mother's death. She wants the law changed so conditional sentences are no longer an option in such cases.
For all her courage, I don't hold out much hope that she'll succeed.
The plea for guidelines to ensure conditional sentences aren't used in cases of violent crimes isn't new. Provincial governments, including B.C., other provinces, opposition parties and the victims have all lobbied the federal government for change.
But Federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon and his predecessors have brushed off those concerns.
Perhaps Tina Thorpe can have more success here in B.C.
Conditional sentences make excellent sense as an alternative to prison. People usually come out of jail more damaged and dangerous, or at best about the same. (About one in three of the people locked up in a provincial jail re-offend within two years.) Pragmatically, the only ones who should be in jail are people who are dangerous, or people whose actions are so bad that we want to demonstrate our outrage.
Not only does jail not work in preventing future crimes, it's expensive. It costs about $55,000 a year to keep someone in provincial jail in B.C.
Conditional sentences are an alternative.The offenders' freedoms are limited. Society gets some measure of protection and imposes a sanction that should - theoretically - deter both the offender and the others. And we save a lot of money.
They are still supposed to be punitive, viewed legally as the equivalent of a jail term, simply served in another setting. Offenders may be allowed to leave their home to work, or attend school, but the rest of the time they are supposed to be serving something much like a jail term, albeit a comfortable one.
And that's where Ms. Thorpe might successfully focus her campaign on the province.
A string of studies and reports, not just in B.C., have found supervision of conditional sentences is weak to non-existent. Most offenders are on the honour system, with little or no monitoring to ensure they aren't ignoring the terms of their sentence.
Two years ago Victoria provincial court Judge Robert Higinbotham sent government a message about his concerns about the lack of supervision.
`The supervision that now takes place under conditional sentences is minimal at best and perhaps nonexistent,'' he said, opting to jail an offender instead of a conditional sentence.
The number of conditional sentences has been rising steadily since they were introduced by Ottawa in 1996. The number of provincial probation officers available to supervise them has not kept pace. When Judge Higinbotham expressed his concern, about 1,600 people were on conditional sentences in B.C. That's climbed by 20 per cent since then, with no increase in staffing.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman acknowledges the problem, and says the province needs to do better. Electronic monitoring is one solution, but B.C. use the devices unless the court makes the order. Only about 100 offenders are under that kind of supervision.
But the budget still shows that the ministry plans to cut the number of supervision workers and increase the number of offenders each one supervises by 10 per cent.
Other provinces have faced the same issues. Quebec studied its problems in 2001 and introduced a protocol that requires at least five telephone checks on offenders each week and at least one or two home visits each month, made randomly at any time of the day or night. And it supported the program by hiring more than 100 additional probation officers.
Conditional sentences make sense.
But an Alberta court of appeal panel that reviewed their use expressed the same concern that British Columbians should have about the province's current commitment to adequate supervision.
"Virtually all the conditional sentences which we have so far seen do little to restrict the convicted person's freedom and leisure," the panel wrote.
"Properly used and carefully crafted, a conditional sentence will serve its intended purpose. Improperly used or skimpily drafted, it will undermine respect for the law."
willcocks@ultranet.ca