It seems like such a simple equation: If a murderer is sentenced to life in prison, he should stay in prison until he dies. Polls have shown that a majority of Canadians support the idea of automatic life without parole, preferring it to the reinstatement of the death penalty, if given the option between the two.
The Harper government is right there with them. It plans shortly to introduce legislation that would make life without parole the automatic sentence for killers of on-duty police and jail guards, and anyone who kills during a sexual assault, a kidnapping or a terrorist act. It could also apply, at a judge's discretion, to a particularly brutal slaying that shocks society.
"Canadians do not understand why the most dangerous criminals would ever be released from prison," the government said in its 2013 Throne Speech. "For them, our government will change the law so that a life sentence means a sentence for life."
The problem is that, if Canadians believe that the most dangerous criminals – the ones serving the current sentence of 25 years without parole eligibility – are walking free as soon as they hit the 25-year mark, it is because they have been misinformed. It is untrue to contend that the types of murderers targeted by the pending Tory legislation have any real chance of getting parole.
There are numerous examples of dangerous criminals who remain in prison until they die, the serial killer Clifford Olson being among the most notorious. Just last October, Justin Bourque, the Moncton man who pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder in the brutal killings of three RCMP officers, was sentenced to 75 years without parole eligibility. He, too, will die in prison.
So what's the problem? Canada does not need automatic life without parole. It is a cruel punishment that risks failing the constitutional test of being proportionate to both the crime and the criminal. It is also self-defeating, in that a person who murders one police officer or one kidnap victim would get the exact same sentence as the person who murders five, or 10, or 20.
Worst of all, it undoes the progress Canada made when it abolished the death penalty in 1976. Canadians have struggled with the fact that the alternative to the finality of capital punishment is the perpetual obligation created by rehabilitation and parole. But that was our choice, and it was a good one. Since the end of the death penalty, the murder rate in Canada has been cut in half.
The Harper government says the justice system is deficient because murderers don't get their so-called just deserts. But the country put the medieval notion of eye-for-an-eye justice behind it in 1976. We don't automatically condemn people to die in prison any more, and we shouldn't go back to that.