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Chronic addiction-based offenders must first be separated from society

It’s hard to say 30 strikes and you’re out with a straight face. It sounds like a silly joke.

But the astounding truth is that the Vancouver Police Department tracks 379 offenders who have an average of 39 convictions each, primarily for theft and other property crime. Six have more than 100 convictions. These are convictions, not charges or run-ins with the police.

Each of those convictions represents a crime and a victim, police and court costs; each incrementally adds to the erosion of our ability to feel safe and secure in our own community.

Each also illustrates what police complain is a catch-and-release court system that provides no deterrence to chronic offenders and little protection to the public.

In a report released this week calling for tougher sentencing, the VPD painted a picture of a typical chronic offender as a crack cocaine addict on a perpetual mission to feed his addiction.

To succeed, he commits a dozen or more break-ins and thefts every day. Occasionally he is arrested.

When he gets hauled into court, the fact that he has been there dozens of times before doesn’t seem to matter. In fact, the police analysis shows that after an offender has been convicted of 30 or more crimes, the average sentence declines to an average of 25 days.

These statistics represent a justice system that is failing on several levels. The sentences represent neither a deterrent to chronic offenders nor an opportunity for rehabilitation.

Most importantly, they fail to protect the public from a clear danger.

Vancouver courts apparently mete out sentences that are on average only a third as long as those imposed by other B.C. cities for similar offenders and less than half the length of the national average outside B.C.

But when the motivation to offend is feeding a drug addiction, it’s unlikely that doubling an average sentence of 25 days will act as a deterrent.

What’s needed is a recognition in law of persistent offenders that will allow judges to sentence them to significantly longer prison terms.

The initial benefit is that for as long as they are incarcerated, the public will be protected from the hundreds of crimes they would have been committing.

For longer sentences to be justified for what on their own are relatively minor crimes, however, they have to be accompanied with genuine opportunities for rehabilitation. That means increasing access to addiction services and treatment for mental illness.

Where chronic offenders respond positively to such treatment, they should earn the right to early release. We recognize that such treatment often fails. In that case, longer sentences will at least keep chronic offenders separated from potential victims.

Jail is not a perfect solution, but after a dozen or more convictions, perfection is less important than protection.
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source: © The Vancouver Sun 2008

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