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March 23, 2015

Government's most fundamental responsibility is that of protecting the common good. Part of that responsibility – in the Canadian system, it is a federal responsibility – is that of protecting the public order, including punishing the perpetrators of major crimes.

Punishment serves three purposes. First and most important, it attempts to redress the disorder caused by the offence. The traditional term for such redress is retribution, widely misinterpreted as meaning revenge. Second, punishment ought to protect the public order by protecting personal safety. Third, it should contribute to the reform of the offender.

There is no magic recipe for achieving these goals. The inability to calculate precisely what sentence will bring about the three desired ends is one reason governments wisely give the courts significant latitude in deciding on prison terms and other forms of redress. A court will, along with determining guilt, carefully examine the circumstances of each crime and of the offender, and establish a sentence.

Moreover, in the interests of justice, we do not want elected officials, who are affected by political concerns, determining guilt and handing down sentences.

The federal government has proposed legislation that would impose life sentences with no chance of parole for 35 years for a select range of murders – "especially brutal" first degree murders, the killing of police or prison guards, and murder during a sexual assault, kidnapping or act of terrorism. It is far from clear what situation has necessitated such legislation.

People who have been convicted of murder in Canada are not being turned out onto the streets if there is any reasonable likelihood that they will again commit violent crimes. Those who have committed especially brutal murders – the Clifford Olsens and Paul Bernardos – will spend their entire lives in prison. They have a right to ask for parole; there is no likelihood that such petitions will be granted.

Those paroled under the current system are nevertheless supervised for the rest of their lives. Every reasonable effort has been taken to protect Canadians from those who have killed in the past.

Parole is an important piece in efforts to

reform criminals. Without some hope of release, there is no external incentive for criminals to turn their lives around. Helping those who have offended to reform their lives is a hallmark of a civilized society.

That leaves the issue of proper redress. As noted above, no perfect formula exists for determining redress. However, Canada has had a formula that gives the courts some discretion and which can be presumed to have worked well short of significant evidence to the contrary.

In no instance should elected officials be given the power to determine sentencing or eligibility for parole in particular instances.

The cause of public safety is far better served by working to eliminate social conditions that are breeding grounds for crime – such as abuse, poverty and poor education – than by permanently jailing murderers who are most unlikely ever to commit such crimes again. The government's legislation is unnecessary, unduly harsh and should be withdrawn.