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Never Getting Out

Canada has very few offenders who will be in prison for their natural life span. Life sentences don’t mean that a person will be behind bars their entire life. That takes a very special designation. Yesterday I explained terminate sentences. Today I’ll cover exceptional sentences, some are terminate, some indeterminate.

Let’s go with life sentences for now. There are some basic levels of murder convictions in Canada. There is death caused in car wrecks, usually involving some sort of intoxicant. It’s not considered to be “murder” per se, despite the fact that someone died. Conviction will involve a federal sentence (over 2 years) but it is a terminate sentence. Then comes manslaughter – homicides committed where there is no intent to kill, or where the intent cannot be formulated. These involve things like deaths in bar fights, domestic violence that is carried to far, etc. The sentence for manslaughter can go as high as life, but doesn’t have to.

Actual “murder” convictions are first and second degree murders. Convictions of either of these degrees is an automatic life sentence. The difference between the two is the number of years they must serve in prison before becoming eligible for day parole. Second degree murder is a conviction where a person does an action that he or she knows might cause the death of another person but continues anyway. Generally these murders are like “heat of the moment” murders. First degree murder is that which is thought out and deliberate. Malice aforethought is the British phrase that fits here. First degree murder is also defined when someone kills a police officer in the, in a highjacking, kidnapping, or sexual assault.

As I mentioned no sentence in Canada means that a person is destined to remain in prison their entire natural life. That said, there are people who are not ever going to be released into the community until they are way too debilitated by age and infirmity to be considered a risk.

When a person is convicted and sentenced to life, they are required to spend a certain amount of time behind bars. The minimum for 2nd degree murder is 10 years to 25 years. The minimum for 1st degree murder is 25 years. That’s only when they become eligible to apply for day parole. They can be kept much longer behind bars depending on the circumstances of the offense, their behaviour while incarcerated, the programs taken, etc. Basically the same criteria as for regular sentences, but with longer time. If an offender is released for day parole, their stay in a half-way house is much longer than the bog standard offender. It’s not uncommon for someone to need 4 or 5 years on day parole to slowly acclimate and adapt to a world that has changed a lot in the time they’ve been in prison.

Think about it. Some of the people I’ve seen were sentenced in the 1970s and 1980s. They went to prison when rotary phones were still in use. Computers were huge, sometimes taking up entire rooms. There were no such things as cell phones, debit cards, and much, much more. So they get released into a an entirely new world. So they not only have to get used to the new world, they have to find employment (and they’re middle aged), save money to eventually move out, try and save for a retirement, find new friends, create some kind of social circle, try and connect with any family that may be alive, if they’re willing, and so on. That’s no easy task. However, eventually they can apply for, be supported for and get, full parole, allowing them to live in the community. The difference is that a lifer will never reach statutory release and their warrant expiry date is the day they die. They will always be supervised by a parole officer and once a month they will have to see that person until the offender dies. The offenders live with the sword over their head, always concerned about the possibility of being sent back to prison. The longer they stay out, the lower the risk of that is because they will have a settled routine (for the most part). People who are convicted of murder are at very low risk of recidivism, unlike other crimes.

There are three different special designations for offenders. First there is the much heard of “Dangerous Offender” designation, the second is Long Term Supervision Order, and the third is section 810 recognizance orders. We’ll start with the last.

Section 810 recognizance orders are special conditions placed upon a person by a judge when they are close to having their sentence complete.

The court may order an individual to comply with a section 810 recognizance orderfor a period not exceeding 24 months when there is a threat of harm to the safety of a person or the community. No convictionsor charges need to be laid for a section 810 recognizance to be ordered. Additionally, an application for a section 810 recognizance order may be made in relation to offenders who are approaching completion of a custody or community sentence, yet continue to pose a risk to reoffend. A section 810 recognizance includes court ordered conditions that must be followed, which may include reporting to aprobation officer. Failure to comply with an 810 recognizance order may result in a charge for a new offence.” (From POLICE – PAROLE HANDBOOK PACIFIC REGION 2011).

The person who has an 810 recognizance order imposed on them is supervised by the local police in their area rather than by a parole officer or probation officer. An offender you may have heard about, Karla Homalka, had an 810 imposed on her after she was released from prison as a way of trying to ameliorate the risk to the community after it was found out that she was more involved in her husband’s crime than she’d copped to prior to receiving the sweetheart deal from the prosecutors in her deal to testify against Paul Bernardo in the murder of Kristine French and Leslie Mahaffy in Ontario. Anyway, after she was released from prison and her sentence was complete, she was required to report to police regularly and follow whatever they required.

This is related somewhat to long term supervision orders. They are similar in that supervision extends beyond the end of the offender’s sentence. The difference is that and LTSO is imposed by the trial judge at sentencing (whereas the 810 follows sentencing and sometimes is imposed after WED). Another major difference is that someone with an LTSO is supervised to the end of the order by parole. This means that the person also has the support and programming of the parole system, which is actually designed for offender supervision, unlike the police. An LTSO can extend up to 10 years following the end of a sentence and is placed on an offender who has demonstrated a long history of violent behaviours. it’s a way of ensuring a person is monitored and lowering risk to the community. The LTSO offenders we see also have residency conditions imposed by the Parole Board in order to further lower the risk to the community. So, like a person on SR with residency, the LTSO offender is one who is at higher risk of reoffending.

Dangerous offender designation is determined in a separate hearing from a person’s trial. The person has to have committed a crime or crimes that are so egregious that their sentence becomes indeterminate. Clifford Olson, a serial killer whose victims were children, was designated a dangerous offender. Paul Bernardo, a serial rapist and murderer of two teenage girls, was designated a dangerous offender. One doesn’t have to murder to be declared a dangerous offender, most of those are serial sex offenders. This is, in essence a life sentence that has the potential to be a true life sentence. You can visit the Canadian site, Public Safety Canada, to find out more about this designation. As with anyone, an offender with DO status can cascade down through the security levels of an institution, apply for and receive ETAs and UTAs, and apply for and receive day or full parole. Whether they get the TAs or parole, depends entirely upon the Parole Board. Some offenders, regardless of how they behave, will never see the outside of a Max facility because they can’t be cascaded down for their own security. They will always be handled in Seg or a special handling unit (SHU) because putting them in the general population would mean their death. These people will not see the community in any meaningful way until they are too old and too infirm for it to make any difference to them.

Of interest, only one woman has been declared a dangerous offender. She successfully fought to have it removed because the crimes she committed were all committed in the institution. Sadly, she killed her self not long after the designation was removed. The government is trying to get another woman designated as such. We’ll see how that works out.

So there you have it. The very long term sentences in Canada.

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