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Why Canada is unwilling to put even its most heinous murderers permanently behind bars

Why Canada is unwilling to put even its most heinous murderers permanently behind bars
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Together, the crimes of Bruce McArthur and Alexandre Bissonnette extinguished up to 510 years of human life and guaranteed decades of nightmares and trauma among the shattered communities they targeted.

There was federal legislation and even judicial precedent to ensure that both men would be guaranteed to die in prison. And yet, on Friday judges in two provinces ruled otherwise, even going so far as to unilaterally rewrite legislation to do so.

The fate of Alexandre and Bissonnette may be the most glaring example yet that there is no crime heinous enough in Canada to stop a killer from one day being able to regain their freedom.

“Many in the community were shocked by the sentence and had expected something more stern that would send a message about how seriously the state took this heinous crime,” said Ihsaan Gardee, head of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

Gardee was present at the Centre culturel islamique de Québec only hours after it saw Bissonnette murder six of its worshippers in 2017. “While we know that the justice system doesn’t exactly work like this, the crude calculation for many is that this translates to about 6.5 years per life,” he said.

Saïd El Amari, a man wounded in the mosque attack,

“I am scared … that the accused will one day regain his liberty in the same society as me and my children.” Safia Hamoudi, who lost her husband, told the court “I hope that justice will be done and that the sentence will amply reflect the odiousness of the crimes committed.”

Hassan Guillet, spokesman for the Council of Quebec Imans, spoke of a likely future in which the orphans of Bissonnette’s victims will be forced to attend the murderer’s parole hearing. “They will re-live what we lived today. It seems to me the wound is still open,” he said.

Fairly sure that if Bruce McArthur had murdered 8 white women he would have got consecutive life sentences. I don’t care if he is likely to be dead before 91, the judge had the opportunity to send a message about the value of the lives of LGBT POC and chose not to #brucemcarthur

A similar pall of shock and disappointment existed outside the Toronto courthouse where McArthur was sentenced. “(The sentence) is not enough for the families, it’s not enough for the lives lost and it’s not enough ,” Nicole Borthwick, a friend of one of McArthur’s victims, told Newstalk 1010 .

Under a 2011 amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada, both Bissonnette and McArthur could have received periods of parole ineligibility longer than 100 years apiece.

The mandated that if an offender had killed multiple people, they would receive 25 years in prison for every person they had killed. Previously, 25 years had been the maximum sentence regardless of victim count.

Given the number of Bissonnette’s victims, prior to Friday it was suspected that he would be given the longest sentence in Canadian history.

Instead, Bissonnette will be able to apply for parole in 40 years, when he will be 67. Meanwhile, McArthur will be able to request a parole hearing in only 25 years, when he will be 91.

In Bissonnette’s case, Quebec Superior Court Justice Francois Huot actually rewrote part of the Criminal Code to give himself the ability to hand out a 40-year sentence.

As written, the Criminal Code only allows judges to impose murder sentences in increments of 25 years. By ruling that this provision was unconstitutional because it was “cruel and unusual” punishment, Huot freed himself to knock 10 years off what should have been either a 25 or 50-year sentence.

McArthur getting to serve his parole eligibility concurrently is just another huge slap in the face to the Toronto LGBT community. And another example of how little the justice system values the lives of us all. #BruceMcArthur #nojustice #LGBTQ2S #McMahonShouldBeAshamed

Even in particularly horrifying criminal cases, it is typical that Canadian judges will structure their sentences to give an offender at least a faint hope of regaining their freedom.

“This is going to sound untenable to many people, and I’m not suggesting that I hold this view, but to many in the legal system the idea is that if you eliminate even the faintest possibility of release it creates problems in the (correctional) system,” said Steven Penney, an expert in criminal law at the University of Alberta.

As convicted murderers, Bissonnette and McArthur both received automatic “life sentences.” In the Canadian context, however, a “life sentence” doesn’t mean “life in prison.” All it means is that if they’re ever released, their parole never expires.

Parole eligibility or not, there is little risk of Canada’s worst criminals ever regaining their freedom. B.C. child murderer Clifford Olson died in custody despite multiple parole hearings. Serial killer Paul Bernardo .

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of examples of mass killers being released on early parole. Denis Lortie, the man responsible for killing three people in a 1984 mass shooting at the Quebec National Assembly, received full parole in 1996.

In 1980, Steven LeClair fatally shot three random patrons at a Vancouver bar and then drove to a RCMP detachment to murder the first Mountie he saw. Despite evidence that he had not come close to taming the explosive rage that had sparked his killing spree, he was nevertheless granted unescorted leaves from prison starting in 2014.

It’s Canadian law that a judge is supposed to factor “retribution” into their sentencing. “Retribution is an accepted, and indeed important, principle of sentencing in our criminal law,” reads a 1996 Supreme Court decision .

As the ruling explained, sentencing shouldn’t only be about reform or public safety, it should also reflect a “society’s condemnation” of a crime.

Judge John McMahon acknowledged as much when sentencing McArthur, even saying it would be “symbolic” if the murderer was ordered to a jail term that would keep him locked up until he was 116 years old.

Nevertheless, since McArthur had pled guilty and was already of advanced age, McMahon ruled it overkill. “There is a fine line between retribution … and vengeance,” he wrote .

In Bissonnette’s case, Judge Huot ruled that keeping the killer behind bars until at least his 70s would destroy his chances at rehabilitation and ultimate re-entry into society. Such a sentence would be “totally incompatible with human dignity” he wrote.

The Quebec decision also ruled that Bissonnette wasn’t as bad as a serial killer or hitman, since all his murders had occurred within the space of only two minutes for “no other gratification than his ‘moment of glory.’”

One overarching factor with Canadian sentencing is that it’s inconsistent. Canada has a loose set of sentencing principles, but it’s ultimately up to individual discretion on how those get applied.

“To be perfectly frank, I find sentencing very murky; we kind of dress it up with these legal concepts and try to pretend we’re engaged in some highly analytical quasi-scientific process of fine-grained moral measurement, but when it comes down to it, people have wildly divergent views of what an appropriate sentence is,” Penney said.

In either the Bissonnette or McArthur case, “you give it to another judge and maybe you get a 75 year sentence.”

For one thing, had McArthur or Bissonnette committed their crimes in Western Canada, they probably would be guaranteed to die in prison.

Although all criminal courts follow the same Criminal Code, those in Canada’s higher-crime western provinces generally hand out stiffer sentences than those in Quebec and Ontario. It’s perhaps no accident that the first consecutive sentence ever given to a multiple murderer occurred in Alberta, when armoured car employee Travis Baumgartner .

If polls are to be believed, the Canadian public seems to be increasingly losing faith with their justice system’s willingness to impose retribution on criminals. A 2018 poll by the Angus Reid Institute found that only 41 per cent of respondents had confidence in provincial criminal courts, while 62 per cent said the justice system was “too soft.”

Whenever they’re asked, Canadians also heavily support the return of capital punishment. Most recently a 2012 poll of Canadians favoured executing criminals such as Bissonnette or McArthur.

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If he’s still alive, McArthur, 67, may ask for parole at age 91

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