Short Shots: (Nearly) disappearing repeat breachers

What to do with people who routinely breach their probation orders?

It’s the question that loomed in the air in Provincial Court today as Judge Rocky Pollack dealt with an accused who had amassed a staggering 41 breaches of probation over the last few years.

He has an alcohol problem. He dislikes authority. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t care if some cop or a judge tells him to behave.

But nonetheless, our courts must still pass a sentence.

I write this not to belabour this man’s case. Booze is his problem. He knows it. His high-risk probation officer knows it. Until he deals with it, not much will change.

I am writing this because Judge Pollack mentioned how a sentencing decision given to him in the case, one crafted in April by colleague Judge Don Slough really grabbed him.

Pollack called it “one of the best sentencing decisions I have ever read.”

The comment peaked my curiosity, so I sought it out today.

Slough’s reasons in Janelle Francois’s case were pretty well on point with the case Pollack was dealing with — more than a dozen breaches in a short amount of time, which netted her “short shots” in jail meant to arrest her breaching behaviour. But they didn’t, apparently work. It got Slough wondering why this is.

From his decision (presented in full below):

People like Ms. Francois form a significant  portion of the individuals appearing in Canadian courts.  The Adult Court Criminal Survey, Canadian Centre for  Judicial Statistics, Statistics Canada 2011: indicates that 21 percent of all cases in adult court are administration of justice offences. Administration of justice offences  include failure to appear in court, unlawfully at large,  failure to comply with a court order, and breach of  probation. Nor is the use of short incarceratory sentences in response to these offences unusual.

In Canada, 55 percent of all custodial sentences are 30 days or less. Sentences of six months or less comprise 80.4 percent of all custodial sentences imposed upon men and 91.2 percent of all sentences imposed on women: Adult Criminal Court Survey, Canadian Centre for Judicial Statistics, Statistics  Canada 2011.  While these individuals form a significant  portion of the workload of the criminal justice system, in many ways they are virtually invisible. Short sentence  rarely attract appellate review. Instead, accused like Ms.  Francois are part of a group of individuals who are  constantly in and out of remand centres and jails.

The crux of Slough’s reasons, to me, appeared to be this: Six months or less isn’t enough time to let any in-custody rehabilitation (like anger management or alcohol-programming) take shape, if not get off the ground at all. 

So what’s the use, then? If jail isn’t a deterrent to keep people out of jail from fear of being in jail, and their time in jail isn’t enough to do much good to address the underlying behaviour which put them there in the first place — aren’t we just throwing good money after bad?

Remember — at $174 a day, the province will spend $15,660 in taxpayer dollars to keep one person behind bars for a 90-day stint, not inclusive of other costs [police, courts or probation].

So I ask — what’s the answer?

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