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Federal politicians back restrictions on release of violent offenders

Allan Dwayne Schoenborn is shown in an undated RCMP handout photo.


Both the federal Justice Minister and the Liberal justice critic say that if elected, they will move quickly to reform the Criminal Code and ensure that violent offenders like Allan Schoenborn can't so easily get supervised outings from psychiatric institutions.

The promises of quick action came Thursday in response to a letter sent by British Columbia Attorney-General Barry Penner to Rob Nicholson, the federal Minister of Justice and Attorney-General.

Mr. Penner, who is concerned that Mr. Schoenborn could get supervised release just one year after being sentenced for killing his three children, wrote to ask for the amendment of a section of the Criminal Code that deals with offenders found not criminally responsible by reason of a mental disorder.

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"I am writing to express concerns about the need to protect public safety," said Mr. Penner in his letter.

Under the Criminal Code, he said, provincial review boards are not required to give adequate weight to the need to protect the public from dangerous people held in psychiatric facilities.

Mr. Penner said three key conditions should be met "before a review board can release the individual or give them … absences of any kind from the hospital where they are being detained and treated."

He said review boards should be required to "give paramount consideration to public safety," get at least two psychiatric opinions and make inquiries about the whereabouts of the victims of the offence before recommending releases of any kind.

Mr. Nicholson, who is campaigning in his riding of Niagara Falls, said Mr. Penner's letter will be at the top of his agenda if a Conservative government returns to power.

"I'm very concerned by the matter raised and I am certainly interested in discussing this with my colleague in British Columbia," Mr. Nicholson said. "That said, we're currently in a campaign. I hope Canadians will renew our mandate in a couple of weeks - but I can assure you we'll be looking into this."

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has made a campaign promise to bring a package of justice legislation before the House and pass it within 100 days if his party wins a majority. Mr. Nicholson said it is not too late to look at adding the B.C. proposal to that package.

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"I'll tell you what, if we're returned on May 2 I'm going to be following this up with my colleague in British Columbia right away, because I'm as concerned as he is when you see a situation like this," he said.

Marlene Jennings, the Liberal justice critic who was campaigning in her Montreal riding of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Lachine, said Mr. Penner has raised "an important issue" that needs quick action.

"A Liberal government would, first of all, find this request of the B.C. Attorney-General to be eminently sensible. … It's the kind of reform that we would look seriously at bringing forward, working with the provincial and territorial counterparts," she said.

Ms. Jennings was critical of Mr. Nicholson for failing to act last October when the issue of the mental disorder section of the Criminal Code was raised at a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers.

NDP justice critic Joe Comartin declined to take questions on the matter when his campaign office was contacted.

The controversy over the release of Mr. Schoenborn was raised when the B.C. Review Board ruled last week that Mr. Schoenborn, who has a long and violent past and killed his three children in 2008, could get supervised day release from the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Port Coquitlam.

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The B.C. Review Board is re-examining the decision in the wake of a public uproar, and after safety concerns were raised by relatives of Darcie Clarke, Mr. Schoenborn's former wife.

Ms. Clarke lives nearby in Coquitlam - but the B.C. Review Board was unaware of that when the decision about day release was made.

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