Life sentence is just that under bill

No early release for some crimes

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OTTAWA -- Killing a police officer or murder involving rape will be among crimes that will net someone a prison bed for the rest of his or her life, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday.

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This article was published 05/03/2015 (2713 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Killing a police officer or murder involving rape will be among crimes that will net someone a prison bed for the rest of his or her life, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday.

“Next week, our government will introduce legislation to ensure that, for the most heinous offenders and the most horrific crimes, a life sentence in Canada will henceforth mean exactly that — a sentence for life,” Harper said during a campaign-style announcement in Toronto.

The new law will apply to people convicted of first-degree murder when it involves sexual assault, kidnapping or forceable confinement, the killing of a cop or a corrections officer, or when the crime is deemed particularly “brutal.”

Darren Calabrese / THE CANADIAN PRESS Prime Minister Stephen Harper says some killers serving life sentences would be permitted to petition for release.

Currently, first-degree murder brings a minimum sentence of life without the chance of parole for 25 years. If an offender sentenced to life is granted parole, that parole period will last the rest of their life.

The new law won’t be retroactive, so it can’t apply to those already sentenced. It means convicted murderers such as Robert Sand, who killed RCMP Const. Dennis Strongquill in 2001, or Samantha Kematch and Karl McKay, who were convicted of first-degree murder for killing Kematch’s five-year-old daughter, Phoenix Sinclair, in 2005, will still be able to seek parole after 25 years of their sentence.

Harper said in order to address constitutional concerns, under the new law some killers serving life without parole will be permitted to petition the federal cabinet for release after serving no less than 35 years.

“This is not parole,” Harper said. “Unlike parole, decisions will not rest with an appointed board but with the federal cabinet; men and women fully accountable to their fellow citizens and to the families of the victims of these crimes.”

That provision, along with much of the proposed new law, is troublesome to University of Winnipeg criminal justice professor Kevin Walby.

“It sounds like it’s blurring the line between different parts of government,” said Walby. Walby said the law smacks of a pre-election ploy playing on fear to win votes. He said the government has already indicated it has no problem taking away judicial discretion by introducing a slew of mandatory minimum sentences for drugs and violent crimes, and Walby said this is just another step in the same direction.

“It’s easy to pander to public fear this way,” he said. He said there is no indication such a law will do anything to make people safer. Harper said the law will apply to very few people, and Walby said most of the people convicted of a crime who would fall into this category are unlikely to get parole after 25 years anyway.

Several families whose loved ones were murdered said the legislation would spare others like them the trauma of repeatedly facing their relatives’ killers in parole hearings.

If enacted, the changes would save families “a lifetime of misery, a lifetime of waiting for phone calls to come, emails to come and preparing yourself mentally and physically for parole hearings,” said Susan Ashley, whose sister, Linda Bright, was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by Donald Armstrong in Kingston, Ont., in 1978.

Public Safety Canada reported in 2012 877 prisoners in the federal corrections system had been convicted of first-degree murder, while another 35 were on day parole and 172 were on full parole. It’s not clear how many of them would have been subjected to the new law.

Liberal justice critic Sean Casey said, in principle, the Liberals support the idea of ensuring extremely violent criminals are kept behind bars. But he said they need to see the actual legislation before deciding if they will support it, because there are risks the government will make it apply too broadly or contravene charter rights. He also said he’s not sure it’s needed because existing provisions, such as a dangerous-offender designation, can already serve the same purpose.

Casey said the government is campaigning with this announcement, made in a news conference in the Toronto area, which is where the next election is expected to be won or lost.

“I think this is more about politics than policy,” said Casey. “But many tough-on-crime measures are.”

 

— with files from The Canadian Press

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Will the Harper government’s life-sentences-for-life legislation make Canada safer? Join the discussion in the comments below.

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Updated on Thursday, March 5, 2015 7:19 AM CST: Replaces photo, adds video, adds fact box, adds question for discussion

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