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Stockwell Day on home invasions: more from his news conference

In Canada on August 4, 2010 at 20:36

Stockwell Day has come under what has to be unwelcome scrutiny over his remarks yesterday about how unreported crime justifies spending billions on new prisons. I guess that’s to provide cells in which to lock up the unreported criminals. The upside is that crowding shouldn’t be an issue.

Day is Treasury Board President now, but used to be Public Safety minister, which might explain his willingness to hold forth on law-and-order issues. In the same eventful news conference, he offered a rather dramatic justification for the government’s push to make sure more convicted criminals serve long terms behind bars. This quote is a bit shambling, but here’s a chunk of what he said:

“We’re really concerned about serious, repeat, violent crime; about the fact that these type of criminals through other administrations, certainly under the Liberal administration—for instance, crimes like arson, crimes like home invasion with aggravated assault, which has to be one of the most grievous types of crimes you can think of, people’s houses being broken into and people, in many cases, senior citizens, being grievously assaulted—previously there were too many cases when those were addressed with what’s called conditional sentencing. That means the criminals in that case get sent home. They don’t have to go to jail. That is not a deterrent. So we’re going to continue to look at serious violent crime and having serious and mandatory jail terms there.”

I understood him to say that thugs who invaded the homes of senior citizens and assaulted them have often been let off without going to prison. At least, that was how it was back when the Liberals ruled. Could this possibly be true? I went looking for information on sentencing in home invasion cases. I found an informative ruling from the Ontario Court of Appeal, handed down on Dec. 8, 2006, which discusses the matter in detail.

The appeal court had been asked to reduce the eight-year sentence imposed by a lower court on a man named Wade Wright, one of five armed robbers who broke into a Richmond Hill, Ont. home in 2004, and terrorized the family inside. Wright’s lawyers argued that eight years was at the stiff end of the customary five- to eight-year range for convictions involving home invasion, and too long in their client’s case.

But the appeal judge, Justice Robert Blair, noted that while five to eight years had once been the normal range, courts across Canada had by then moved toward longer sentences. Blair cited home invasion convictions in which the sentences were 10, 12 and 13 years, and quoted judges, stretching back to a key 1996 ruling, expressing outrage at criminals who violate the sanctity of the home.

Not surprisingly, politicians in that period had picked up on the same public anger over home invasions that was being echoed from the bench. In 2002, the Liberal government of the time amended the Criminal Code to explicitly make home invasion, which isn’t a separate offence, an aggravating factor that judges would have to take into account when they were handing down sentences for related crimes like unlawful confinement, robbery, extortion, and breaking and entering.

So by the time the Conservatives took office in 2006, the courts had been seized by the seriousness of home invasions for at least a decade, and were sending offenders to jail for longer. And, in Ottawa, the government had changed the law to make sure those harsher sentences were imposed as a matter of course.

Have there been exceptions of the sort Day described—old people beaten in their own homes, and yet their assailants let off with conditional sentences? I’m not sure how that could happen.  For one thing, conditional sentences—in which the criminal serves time in the community under supervision and court-ordered restrictions—are only allowed when imprisonment would have been less than two years. But sentences in home invasion convictions, as we’ve seen, seem to be much longer than that.

I’ve asked Day’s office, and the offices of the Justice and Public Safety ministers, to provide material supporting his statement yesterday. So far, they have only passed along the broad Statistics Canada data on criminal courts, which shows that 4.4 per cent of adult criminal convictions result in conditional sentences. There’s nothing in the data that I can see, though, to shore up Day’s version of reality.

I’m left to conclude that, in fact, lengthy prison sentences have long been the standard punishment for those convicted of crimes that involve home invasion. Judges and the previous government took note of society’s natural outrage over this kind of crime, and acted accordingly. What Day said looks to be an unfounded attempt to exploit public outrage over crime in general, and the fears of senior citizens over having thugs break into their homes in particular.

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