Pubdate: Thu, 11 Oct 2007
Source: Summerland Review (CN BC)
Copyright: 2007 The Summerland Review
Author: Tom Fletcher


VICTORIA - The Interior town of Williams Lake has done a good job of 
highlighting the problem of "prolific offenders" in recent weeks. 
Instead of playing down its distinction as B.C.'s crime capital as 
previous honourees Surrey, New Westminster and North Vancouver have 
done before, Williams Lake Mayor Scott Nelson has used police 
statistics to tackle the problem head-on.

He's put the message out forcefully that the numbers are driven by a 
handful of hardcore repeat offenders who, especially in a small town, 
can generate a crime wave all by themselves. But the same story could 
be told in communities around the province, and it's usually a story 
about what people will do to get drugs.

In Williams Lake and elsewhere they're demanding that repeat 
offenders be kept in custody until they are sentenced, so at least 
they can't rack up new crimes while awaiting trial. While that's an 
appealing idea, B.C. Solicitor General John Les reminds me of its major flaw.

Career criminals (and their lawyers) prefer to maximize time "in 
remand" awaiting trial, especially if the evidence against them is a 
slam dunk. In a time-honoured (and naive) tradition, judges kindly 
give them two-for-one credit for time served while they are still 
technically innocent.

Holding suspects creates another problem for the B.C. correctional 
system, which runs addiction programs for inmates.

"The reality is they spend more time there in remand than actually 
sentenced, and when they're there on remand, there's not much we can 
do with them, because there's the whole presumption of innocence 
thing," Les told me. "You can't impose anything on them. And then 
when they're sentenced, typically they don't spend a whole lot of 
time there anyway."

Another popular notion is that the threat of harsh sentences will 
deter the kind of impulsive property crime that plagues communities. 
But does it really? One sobering study done in 1992 examined the most 
direct of consequences, delivered by Irish Republican Army enforcers 
to juvenile car thieves in Northern Ireland: "kneecapping," or 
shooting the thief in the leg with a handgun. Did this reduce the 
number of car thefts? No. Other studies suggest that 80 per cent of 
car thieves believe they will never be caught, and that in the U.S., 
only about 14 per cent are caught.

For those desperate for drugs, fear of consequences seems an even 
more remote notion. That's why today authorities are looking toward 
the community court or "drug court" model for solutions.

Les has high hopes for B.C.'s community court pilot project, due to 
open next spring in Vancouver. Its goal is to deal with offenders 
quickly, giving them one shot at serving a sentence in a treatment 
program before going into the regular system.

Les says the big city is the logical place to start, since it has the 
most treatment programs available, but smaller towns can benefit too, 
and Williams Lake has already begun talks with police and community agencies.

Last week the federal government launched its latest anti-drug 
strategy, amid much squawking in the big-city media about a 
U.S.-style war on drugs, and the allegedly urgent need for more 
defeatist pest-holes along the lines of Vancouver's unsafe injection site.

About half of the Stephen Harper government's $64 million anti-drug 
strategy is supposed to be directed to treatment programs. Given the 
Conservatives' ideological rigidity, that probably means 
abstinence-based programs, which by happy coincidence are the only 
ones that actually work.

How will repeat offenders be made to stick to programs, and how will 
the public be kept safe? Les says he'll have more to say on that in a 
few weeks.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press newspapers.
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