Convicted murderers are among the ranks of federal workers losing their jobs through budget cuts.
The Globe and Mail has learned that one of the many federal programs that will be cut in its entirety is LifeLine, a program aimed at helping people with life sentences – or “lifers” – successfully re-integrate into society once they’ve been paroled.
At a starting salary of about $38,000, the program hires and trains successfully-paroled lifers to mentor other lifers who are still incarcerated or who have been recently released on parole.
“It’s too bad about the LifeLine. It helped me out a lot. It kept me out of prison,” said Peter Wozney, 44, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder when he was 16 and has been successfully paroled since August of 2009.
Mr. Wozney said he failed several times at parole – usually because of substance abuse issues – but he attributes the success of his last parole to using the LifeLine program in Windsor, Ont.
He said people who have been locked away for such long periods need guidance and advice on how to return to society.
“It’s going to hurt a lot of lifers inside, because I’ve seen a lot of lifers mess up in other places that are not LifeLine,” said Mr. Wozney, who speaks to school classes about his life. “We need someone to tell us what to do.”
Part of the job of LifeLine workers is to appear at parole board hearings to offer their perspective on the readiness of an inmate to leave incarceration.
The program was created after Canada officially removed capital punishment from the Criminal Code in 1976 and has been praised by those involved. But its supporters knew it was unlikely to survive the Conservative budget cuts.
“I have to tell you that I saw this coming because of the nature of the employees of LifeLine. It’s a pretty easy target politically,” said one lifer in the program, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The man, who was convicted and served a sentence for murder, says he was helped by the program while in prison and now helps others. He learned last week that he will lose his job as a LifeLine counsellor.
He says history shows the program works.
“It’s almost unheard of that lifers violently reoffend,” he said. “So as far as the public safety goes, I think [the program]works. It’s very cost-efficient. LifeLine’s been operating for 20 years, virtually without an incident.”
A spokesperson for the Correctional Service of Canada said the decision to end the $2-million a year program is based on federal research.
“Evaluation and research findings on the LifeLine program did not reveal significant correctional results were being achieved through offender’s participation in the LifeLine program,” Sara Parkes wrote in an email. She said the Correctional Service offers a broad range of rehabilitation programs to offenders in institutions and the community, including programs designed to target general violence, family violence, sexual offending, substance abuse and general crime.
Under the Criminal Code, offenders serving a life sentence for murder may be considered for parole after serving 15 years of their sentences. Offenders serving life sentences for first-degree murder can be eligible for day parole after 22 years and full parole after 25 years.
The lifer counsellor said he was not aware of any other program that will replace LifeLine’s functions, like driving a paroled lifer several hours from prison to a half-way house.
“I don’t [expect to]see a lot of volunteers transporting guys from Kingston to Toronto or to Windsor on a regular basis, for the obvious reasons,” he said.
The Correctional Service’s own website still features plenty of praise for the program and speaks positively of the contribution paroled lifers can make.
“Lifers have committed the ultimate offence against society, but the vast majority are not calculating, experienced criminals,” states one section called “Lifers as successes.”
“While serial killers and assassins exist, they are not the typical lifer. Most murder victims are usually a relative or close acquaintance. Most frequently, lifers' crimes are triggered by circumstance, substance abuse, emotional trauma, or a combination of these. They are among the most likely to succeed on parole.”
Skip Graham, executive director of St-Leonard’s House – a Windsor Ont. boarding house that helps people like Mr. Wozney who have served life sentences re-integrate into society – says it gives people encouragement while in prison.
“I certainly believe that this program enhances the probability of a man coming out of prison in much better mind and more ready to be a part of the community,” he said. But he, too, says he can understand the government’s thinking.
“If they’re laying off their own public servants, I imagine the idea of not laying off paroled lifers is probably not a very good optic in their eyes.”
BY THE NUMBERS
26: number of paroled life-sentence offenders receiving salaries to support other lifers.
2,280: number of lifers who received support under the LifeLine program in 2010-11.