Ottawa Sun Online: NEWS - Sentences short on time served
Ottawa Sun Online: NEWS - Sentences short on time served

Friday June 16 2006

Sentences short on time served

By Michael Harris

On the day that the Harper government rolled out a bill creating a new Criminal Code offence in Canada, I received a broken-hearted lament for a son forever lost.

I applaud the government for getting tough on the idiots who turn our city streets into drag racing strips, yet that e-mail from Paulette Moffitt gave me pause:

"Just received news from Nancy L. Stableforth, deputy commissioner of Correctional Service of Canada stating that the case management team submitted a recommendation for statutory release of Henry Danninger. We LOST -- we let ANDY down again. There is no justice system. It is a system for helping killers get away with murder."

Paulette's son, Andy, was stabbed to death by Danninger. The killer received five years for that crime but will in all likelihood walk free in August after serving just three years behind bars. It's called statutory release and it is a crying shame that it is still on the books.

Andy was trying to stop a fight when Henry Danninger snuffed out his life. It was a little like Cactus, who was knifed to death under the shadow of the Chateau Laurier, for objecting to someone urinating on the ground where the street kid and his friends slept. Each victim in his own way was trying to do the right thing. If justice for Cactus looks anything like what justice for Andy turned out to be, will it be justice at all?

The answer of course is no. Sentencing, and how our parole and prison system subverts it, is not just a Canadian problem. While it is hard to find a single jurisdiction outside of Quebec where the political leaders don't present themselves as tough on crime, the fact is we have had, at least up until now, neither the stomach nor the money to make the bad guys do serious time.

In the U.S., financially strapped governors have actually ordered the release of dangerous felons because their states simply couldn't afford to keep them locked up.

In the U.K. it is the same story: For every sentence the court of appeal increased in the past year, it reduced 22 others for being too severe.

Although the average prison sentence handed down for serious offences has gone up, many U.K. prisoners have been released under Tony Blair's regime after serving less than half of their sentences.

In some cases, the leniency has been almost criminal. Although the number of life sentences in the U.K. more than doubled in 2005, Blair freed 53 so-called "lifers" after serving just six years in prison. Why? Because Britain's prison system is overloaded with felons and no one wants to build new prisons.

And by that circuitous route, back to the question at hand: The tough, new Tory bill that could put a killer in jail for life whose murder weapon is a racing car, or in lesser cases, prohibit him from ever holding a license again. It is a long way from becoming law, but it certainly must look good on paper to Canadians who are sick and tired of seeing the vicious and vacuous walk away from serious crime virtually unpunished.

But the fact is, neither this new law, (should it pass), nor any other one-off the federal government might bring forward will have any chance of being what it seems unless there are fundamental reforms of how we handle crime and punishment in this country.

Andy Moffitt's killer is set to walk out of prison this summer because a law that makes convicts automatically eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of their sentences is still on the books. Is there a single parent out there who sees that as justice?

And is there anyone out there who thinks many life sentences or lifetime driving suspensions for street racing will be handed down by our courts and supported by our parole and prison system?

Justice Minister Vic Toews and his fellow minister Stockwell Day have campaigned on the promise of bringing real reform to our justice and public safety system, including ending sentence discounts for criminals and building new prisons if that's what it takes to deal with reality.

That, despite this welcome bill to fight street racing, is where the rubber really hits the road.

   Letter to the Media
   Bill C-393
   Our Angel
   Thank You
   Mike's Speech
   Memorial Speech
   Andy's Story
   Our Brother