Friday, August 04, 2006

Whitmore case highlights justice system flaws

VICTORIA - It's time for answers about how pedophile Peter Whitmore was able to roam so freely around Canada even though authorities were convinced he was a threat to children.
The notion that we can reduce crime problems by locking more people up for longer periods is generally foolish. Other countries have tried that approach and found it to be a costly failure. Tough talk on crime has more to do with politics than pragmatism.
But Whitmore and a small number of others like him - apparently incorrigible sex offenders who target children - pose a special challenge for courts, police and society. His case suggests the response is inadequate.
Whitmore surrendered to police in Saskatchewan and now faces sexual assault and abduction charges.
But his record goes back to 1993, when he was convicted of abducting and sexually assaulting four young boys. He served 16 months in jail, a relatively light sentence that likely reflected the court's view that he could change his behaviour.
He didn't. Nine days after he was set free Whitmore abducted an eight-year-old girl and sexually assaulted her. He was sentenced to four years in jail. Released under a set of conditions, he fled to Mexico and was eventually returned to jail.
When he was released once more Whitmore spoke to reporters and pleaded to be left alone. He wouldn't re-offend, he said. One more conviction could mean dangerous offender status and life in jail.
Weeks later he was found in a hotel room with a 13-year-old boy and sent back to prison for a year.
Released again, Whitmore was found with a five-year-old boy, carrying what police described as a "rape kit" -- tape, plastic ties, latex gloves and lubricant.
It should have been clear that Whitmore was a risk to children. Even knowing he faced life in jail, he was unable to stop.
But the criminal justice system was unable to respond to the danger effectively with sentences that protected society or effective supervision.
One solution is supposed to be dangerous offender designation, a rarely used but important provision that allows judges to jail offenders permanently if they appear certain to commit more crimes.
But Whitmore didn't qualify. He was repeatedly jailed for violating the conditions of his release, not for serious offences that would have allowed the Crown to apply for dangerous offender status.
Perhaps the Crown should have been more diligent in laying additional charges. Perhaps the legislation needs to be changed to allow dangerous offender status for people with offence patterns like Whitmore's. Something needs to change.
The case raises other serious issues.
When Whitmore was released in B.C. last year he was the subject of a Section 810 order, an extraordinary measure that allows police to keep close tabs on an offender released after serving his full sentence. He can be required to report daily to police, for example, and notify them of all his movements.
But, so far inexpilicaly, the order was allowed to lapse this June. Whitmore left for Alberta immediately. Police and Crown prosecutors there were in the process of applying for a new order, but were moving slowly. Whitmore, freed from tight supervision, took off across the country on his own. You have read the rest.
The failure has nothing to do with gaps in the law or a need for tougher legislation.
All police and prosecutors had to do was make sure the order was renewed before it expired on June 12 so that Whitmore remained under close supervision. (That had apparently worked for a year.)
They didn't do that, despite warnings from the parole board that he was virtually certain to re-offend.
Pedophile offenders pose a huge challenge to the justice system. Treatment is difficult and many remain a high risk to commit new assaults.
Whitmore's case suggests the system did not meet the challenge, in large part because it failed to make effective use of the existing laws.
Footnote: The case also highlights the need for the changes to age-of-consent legislation, promised by the Conservatives for this fall. Whitmore is accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy travelling with him. Under the current law, his defence options include arguing that the boy was a consenting sex partner.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hiding the crime facts from public a dumb idea

VICTORIA - The Mounties are likely right. People are way more concerned about crime than they should be.
But their idea that the best solution could be to keep crimes secret is bizarre.
B.C. RCMP discussed reducing the flow of information as a way to “improve” the public’s attitude about crime. People were more scared than they should be, according to an internal RCMP report obtained by the Vancouver Sun. It suggested media relations officers provide less information, in hopes that would mean less media coverage and a happier public.
The real problem isn’t too much information, it’s too little. Any journalist who has tried to pry information from the RCMP - or most police forces - can attest to the difficulty in getting more than the barest basics.
There are exceptions, notably when police call a press conference and lay out seized guns or drugs as a photo op. (And who is creating fear about crime then?)
But generally, secrecy rules. Crime stories may make the headlines, but not because of chatty RCMP officers.
The Mounties’ internal report included an analysis of unidentified B.C. newspapers over a four-week period that found 67 per cent of front-page stories were about crime. (The Sun reported 26 per cent of its front-page stories in the previous month dealt with crime.) And it cites a poll done for the RCMP that found 68 per cent of B.C. residents said they were concerned that their families may be a victim of crime.
Our fear of crime is overblown. Most Canadians think crime is on the increase; in reality the rates for most crimes have been declining fairly steadily for 20 years, falling by five per cent last year. Despite the drug-driven problems of car break-ins and theft, we’re safer today than we were in 1990.
And media coverage may fuel fear. My first reporting job included showing up at the Red Deer RCMP detachment every morning and getting a briefing on what had happened in the last 24 hours from the staff sergeant, which I then compiled into the Police Log for that day’s paper. It wasn’t complete - the sergeant didn’t even try to dissemble when he read what was obviously an interesting entry to himself, shook his head and then just turned the page. But the paper’s reports gave a fair picture of what police really did, hauling in drunks, breaking up arguments and checking out garage thefts.
Terrible things still happened. But anyone who read the paper knew they were rare. Most days, not much bad occurred at all (especially if you stayed away from the Windsor Hotel bar).
That kind of reporting is still the norm in many smaller communities, with much depending on the co-operation of the local RCMP detachment. And interestingly, the RCMP the survey found 53 per cent of Greater Vancouver residents think police are doing a good job. In the rest of province, police got good marks from 65 per cent in the rest of the province. More information may mean higher approval for police.
Crime is a public issue. The police are paid by - and accountable to - citizens. They don’t have any right to withhold information because they think it might give people the wrong idea or make them look bad.
But the media should take a look at its role. Major crimes demand major coverage. But our job should be to help people understand the world they live in, and it may be that our crime reporting leaves people uninformed about the daily grind for police and in the courts. Maybe every paper should have a Police Log.
Ignorance isn’t really bliss; keeping information from the public as a strategy is both wrong and futile.
This is a very safe place to live. Yet people are troubled by crime. The answer lies in more information, understanding and informed debate about the best public policies - not more secrecy.
Footnote: I covered courts and cops briefly. And as a naive young reporter, the most surprising thing to me was how well the system worked. Police functioned as social workers with guns, except when the really bad people came around. The courts did an effective job in locking up the dangerous, giving a reasonable chance to the potentially redeemable and acquitting the innocent. The system - terribly flawed - mostly worked, given the limitations government set.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Big raises for top goverment managers not out of line

VICTORIA - It’s traditional that government news releases on controversial topics - like pay raises for senior managers and political staffers - are dropped on Friday, often late in the day.
It usually works. There’s not much time to work up a story for the next day’s paper or that evening’s newscast. By Monday, the media - with its short attention span - has moved on.
Premier Gordon Campbell’s announcement of big raises for top government managers and political staffers was made on a summer Friday. Some political staffers would be eligible for 25-per-cent pay raises under the new plan. Senior managers would be eligible for raises of up to 40 per cent under the new grids.
Big jumps are the norm for senior managers. Dan Miller, as NDP premier, approved increases of almost 30 per cent for some managers in 2000. Campbell moved to bump some wages up by another 30 per cent in the next year.
It’s not a particularly effective way of managing pay scales. And now it’s happening again.
Should you be worried? A little, but not about the pay grid. The maximum salaries for deputy ministers - CEOs of very large organizations - goes up nine per cent, to $220,000.
That’s very good pay. But it’s still likely too little to ensure that B.C. can attract the very best candidates for the top jobs in critical ministries. It’s certainly not an excessive rate of pay for a good candidate to fill the vacancy at the top of the health ministry, for example, responsible for managing a vast enterprise.
Assistant deputy ministers - another 100 or so people one level down - also get a sharp increase in the pay grid. They max out at $160,000. Again, the pay is not too much for the responsibility in some of the jobs.
You can quarrel with the whole idea that people should make more than some arbitrary ceiling, but you can’t really make a strong case against these kinds of pay rates. The government says the new put B.C. in the middle of the pack among provinces.
You can be nervous about administration. Higher pay should mean higher demands for performance and greater accountability. It’s not clear that that the principle is clearly established in government. and there is always the risk that pay for all managers - not just those in the most demanding jobs - will creep upward.
You can also be nervous about the increases for political appointments. Pay scales jump from 13 per cent to 26 per cent. Assistants to ministers will be paid up to $94,500; executive assistants to ministers will be paid up to $68,400. (MLAs are paid about $75,000.)
The political increases are harder to justify. The jobs are demanding - especially for the people working with some ministers. But there has been no evidence offered that pay rates are making it impossible to attract and retain good employees. The new levels appear high compared to private sector equivalents and take B.C.’s pay for political appointees is now the third highest in Canada. The government hasn’t made a good case for the increases.
The latest raises mean just about everyone getting money from the government has had some sort of pay increase, from deputy ministers to health care workers to teachers.
But not MLAs. Their sneak attempt to award themselves a large pay raise and an extremely expensive pension plan fell apart in bitterness last fall. The deal had all been done behind closed doors and was set to be rushed through the legislature without debate or time for public reaction. But NDP leader Carole James, who had promised her party’s support, reneged. The Liberals were furious, and some New Democrat MLAs were just as peeved.
The angry Liberals said they weren’t going to talk about MLA pay increases again.
And despite some pressure from within, they’re likely going to stick to that position. MLAs will have to be content with their regular cost-of-living increases.
Footnote: What do these people do? Think of a deputy minister as the CEO of the ministry, responsible for its success, and deputy ministers as vice-presidents. They’re supposed to be non-partisan professional managers. Political staff - ministerial assistants and the like - are picked for party loyalty as well as their ability to help the minister deal with issues.