Why do freedom fighters yearn for locks and keys?

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Mon Apr 11 2011.   Colin Kenny

Conservatives who mix the mantra of individual freedom with an obsession for putting people behind bars? Do they never ask themselves whether it isn’t a bit simplistic to divide society into “good folk” and “bad folk” and then try to consign the baddies to perdition for ever more?

The Harper government waxed apoplectic about the “two-for-one” system that some judges used to use to reduce sentences for accused who had been locked up for some time in a provincial remand centre while awaiting trial. If the accused was found guilty, some judges would give double credit for time spent in the remand centre, reducing the time to be spent in a penitentiary. Some critics said that system encouraged criminals to “game” the system by delaying trials, so as to get less total time.

Parliament passed the government’s Truth in Sentencing Act last year to eliminate two-for-one, although some judges still accomplish the same end by shaving time off the sentence they would otherwise have imposed.

There was indeed some gaming done, but the best way to deal with it is for the judges to use their wisdom and experience to figure out when trial delays are reasonable and when they are a scam.

However, in non-gaming situations — when people are confined in inhumane conditions for weeks and months for reasons beyond their control — giving extra consideration of people who have been held in remand centres for too long made sense and still make sense.

Why? Because some remand centres are overcrowded and courts are badly understaffed. Why shouldn’t survivors of this conundrum get some kind of compensation when their right to a speedy trial gets mired in delay?

By the way, some of the people stuffed away in remand centres end up being found innocent. You would think that those Conservative-minded people who love freedom so much would be appalled at innocent people being locked away for far too much time, and would be calling for greater investments in our justice system to create a more streamlined process. But that doesn’t seem to be the government’s preoccupation.

The other current fetish of some right-wingers is that all prisoners should serve full sentences. But the chance to get out on parole is essential.

First, prisoners who can’t earn their way out early have nothing to gain by showing respect for the prison system, and lack of respect puts guards’ safety in jeopardy.

Second, prisoners who serve full sentences don’t report to parole officers. I have watched parole officers in action. They are often able to keep ex-cons on the straight and narrow out there in the real world, and that is what we want, isn’t it?

A small part of me wishes that the guilty would spend more time in federal penitentiaries to take advantage of rehabilitation programs in the “correctional” service. But the Harper government is de-emphasizing rehabilitation — the emphasis now is on punishment. Remember that great program where prisoners were working on farms, with animals, and how everyone said how humanizing it was? That program is now toast.

For some people justice is all about revenge, where the good people in white hats get back at the bad people in black hats. Like most simple solutions, this one is for simpletons.

Colin Kenny is a Liberal senator and former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca

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